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APD mental health liaison officer offers support

Const. Angela Scott is the Abbotsford Police Department’s mental health liaison officer.  - Vikki Hopes
Const. Angela Scott is the Abbotsford Police Department’s mental health liaison officer.
— image credit: Vikki Hopes

Reports of a man waving around a knife in the parking lot of the Abbotsford Food Bank on April 16 quickly became a “priority one” call for local police.

The nearest patrol unit in the area was dispatched to the scene and was immediately followed by back-up units.

The goal for the officers was to quickly ensure that the man, Roy Roberts, a homeless person with mental-health issues, was separated from his weapon and not a danger to himself or others.

With no way of knowing what Roberts might do next or whether he might have another weapon on him, police issued multiple commands for Roberts to lie down on the ground.

He was shot with rubber bullets and beanbag rounds when he refused to do so.

Abbotsford Police Const. Ian MacDonald said the goal in a crisis such as this is to end the situation as quickly as possible without anyone being injured or killed. There is little time for anything else.

“The first priority isn’t to solve all of life’s issues (for that person); it’s to get them safe,” MacDonald said.

But when the crisis is over, there is more work to be done.

MacDonald said approximately 10 per cent of the Abbotsford Police Department’s (APD) 55,000 calls a year have a mental-health component to them.

That’s where Const. Angela Scott comes in. As the APD’s mental health liaison officer, her role is to focus on some of the more urgent, chronic or challenging cases – 86 files last month alone – and work with agencies in the community to determine a long-term plan for the individual.

“My role is to rally the troops,” she said.

These people come to police attention through incidents such as a suicide attempt, a disturbance, hoarding, a drug-induced psychotic episode, dementia-related violence, or sleeping in a doorway.

Scott’s task is often preventive in nature, reaching people at the initial stages before a more serious incident occurs.

She starts by talking to the person. If their troubles are related to addiction, she asks them if they’re open to treatment.

If they have a history of mental illness, she asks them questions such as whether they’ve been taking their medication or when they last saw their doctor.

She also determines whether housing or money issues are factors.

Scott can then link the person to the appropriate community resources, such as Abbotsford Mental Health, the Salvation Army, Abbotsford Community Services and others.

Sometimes, the individual is not open to help, and that’s when the service providers have to step back.

“The reality is treatment is voluntary, so they have to want to go there … Most are not very responsive to that, to be honest,” she said.

“It’s a human rights issue. You can’t force people to take pills.”

In those situations, Scott said police – and others – keep tabs on the individuals, ensuring their safety and that of the community.

In some instances, they are in and out of the criminal justice system, as is the case with Roberts, who was charged with possessing a weapon for a dangerous purpose in the food bank incident and is currently in custody.

Although Roberts has refused treatment and housing in the past, Scott and local agencies continue to plan for his eventual release back into the community.

In other cases, Scott said it’s often a matter of first building trust with people before they ask for help. She may also connect with family members to find the appropriate support.

The work can be challenging, but Scott said her nurturing nature makes her persevere.

“There are moments when I feel defeated, and there are moments when I feel completely euphoric when you’ve made a difference,” she said.

Scott, who had thought about a career as a teacher or a social worker, became interested in policing because her two older brothers were officers.

She joined the APD in 2003, serving six years in patrol and then with the youth squad before being approached to take over as the mental health liaison officer a year ago. The former officer, Const. Linda Buchanan, was retiring and moving away. She was the first one to serve in the position, which began in late 2010.

MacDonald said Scott serves a vital role in the community.

“The work that Angela does is critically important. The way she does that work is a testament to her character and compassion. We have the right person in a very important role,” he said.

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