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‘Last resort’: Police forces struggling to provide support for people in crisis


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CALGARY — Pat and Irene Heffernan have relived their son’s death many times.

Anthony Heffernan, a 27-year-old recovering from a drug addiction, was shot by police four times — including three shots to the head and neck — after officers were called to a Calgary motel on March 16, 2015.

Officers said Heffernan was behaving strangely as he stood near beds with a lighter and a syringe, and didn’t obey commands to drop them.

The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, which reviews serious actions by police, investigated but no charges were laid.

The Heffernans wonder what would have happened if a mental-health professional had been there.

“You had five heavily armed officers. It’s just a nightmare story. You can’t make it up,” said Heffernan’s mother, Irene, from her home in Prince Albert, Sask.

Pat Heffernan said his son was in crisis and officers bursting into the hotel room was a mistake.

“It seems that they’re trying to escalate the situation rather than de-escalate. If they would have gone in calmly and talked to him, it might have been a totally different story,” he said.

“What we wanted out of this whole thing is for it not to be happening to other people. We were naive thinking this was something that rarely happened.”

A 2021 study in the Journal of Community Safety and Well-Being found 75 per cent of police-involved civilian fatalities in Canada involved a person experiencing a mental-health crisis or who was under the influence of a substance.

It said police officers deployed use of force about two per cent of the time.

Psychologist Patrick Baillie, who consults for the Calgary Police Service, supports more officer training. He said mental-health professionals are teamed with officers, but are only sent as a secondary response after a safety assessment.

“The initial, most cost-effective … (approach) is the training of officers, better access to mental-health professionals, more officers to do consultations 24 hours a day who could call somebody,” Baillie said.

“If there was a larger core of clinical social workers, maybe a psychiatrist or two, that would help as well.”

Baillie said police in Memphis have dispatchers trained to recognize mental-health calls and about 20 per cent of officers have been taught to deal with people in crisis.

Baillie acknowledges that obtaining mental-health resources can be difficult.

“We end up dealing up with an increasing number of mental-health calls, because of the people who have fallen, not through the cracks, but through the cavernous holes that we have in our system.”

Police in Lethbridge, Alta., recorded a 19 per cent drop in use of force encounters last year compared to 2020. Some 28 per cent of subjects were in a state of crisis at the time.

Acting Staff Sgt. Rick Semenuik said the service has added a second mental-health professional to pair with officers.

“It’s been very useful. I can speak from personal experience,” he said.

“They had a relationship with the person and they talked to them and there was never any force used. It was done peacefully every time.”

Semenuik said Lethbridge officers receive mental-health training annually and focus on communicating with those who are going through a crisis.

Police in Vancouver began a program in 1978 called Car 87, which teams a constable with a registered nurse or psychiatric nurse to provide on-site assessments and intervention — when there’s no safety risk — for people living with mental illness.

Sgt. Steve Addison said officers on the front line deal with more serious cases.

“There’s a huge mental-health crisis here in Vancouver. Our officers are encountering people who are living … in psychosis, struggling on a very frequent basis,” he said.

“They’re frequently coming in contact with police officers … because they’re falling through the cracks. They’re not getting the support they need further up the line.”

Vancouver police have been vocal about the need to provide social supports for people with mental-health issues, addictions, poverty and homelessness, Addison said.

“We’re first responders, but we’re also the last resort for people in crisis, so at 3 o’clock in the morning when someone’s in psychosis and waving around a sword or feeling suicidal or hanging off the side of a bridge, who gets called?”

Specialized officers expert in crisis negotiation are deployed several times a day when someone is suicidal, experiencing an extreme mental-health episode or is posing a public safety risk, Addison said.

“We’ll be the first to call for more support for people who are living with these very, very complex needs, so they don’t have to come in contact with the police for what often is a mental-health issue.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2022.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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Alberta extends electricity rebate program until December at a cost of about $600M

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Edmonton – The Alberta government says it will extend its electricity rebates until the end of the year as the cost of living continues to rise.

Dale Nally, who’s the associate minister of natural gas and electricity, says the United Conservative government is doubling the rebate to help reduce the financial burden on Albertans.

The government says the electricity rebate program will now offer about $600 million in relief through 2022.

It says the program will provide nearly two million homes, farms and small businesses with a monthly $50 bill credit each month from July until December.

The government says it will also provide a natural gas rebate to millions of Albertans starting in October, which will continue until March 2023 if prices remain high.

Last week, Finance Minister Jason Nixon announced a $3.9-billion surplus for the 2021-22 fiscal year ending March 31.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2022.

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Telus Corp. marks opening of Telus Sky in downtown Calgary

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CALGARY — Telus Corp. marked the opening of its new 60-storey Calgary headquarters on Wednesday.

The new $400-million skyscraper, Telus Sky, has been in development for nine years and is now the third-tallest building in downtown Calgary. It features 750,000 square feet of office and retail space as well as 326 rental homes.

The building’s eye-catching design, by architects Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Dialog, along with developer partner Westbank and Allied, starts with a rectangular floorplate and then gradually twists as it rises.

Integrated into the facade of Telus Sky is Canada’s largest public art display. “Northern Lights” by Canadian author and artist, Douglas Coupland, creates a light show across the building’s exterior.

Telus Sky will be home to more than 1,600 Telus employees. It joins TELUS Garden in Vancouver, TELUS Harbour Toronto, TELUS House Ottawa, and Place TELUS Québec as one of the company’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum-certified buildings.

Among the building’s environmental features is a storm water management system that recycles rainwater for use in washroom toilets, reducing the building’s municipal water demand by 70 per cent.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 6, 2022.

Companies in this story: (TSX:T)

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press

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