Officers are on the streets every day but some days it doesn’t feel like they’re getting anywhere in the battle against opioids.
“There are still a lot of members who feel that we’re fighting. Fighting a system that doesn’t support us helping people,” explained Sue Hamilton.
Hamilton, a 27-year police veteran and the Victoria Police Department’s mental health liaison officer is talking about the difficulties of ‘the system’ – the resources and expectations allocated to social healthcare, judicial and police services.
The system was first battered by a crystal meth epidemic and now by rising opioid use, which has shaken the social fabric of Canada.
Hamilton has worked on Victoria’s multidisciplinary assertive community treatment teams for the past four and a half years, building relationships and offering outreach to those with severe mental health and addiction problems.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s such a challenge with addiction. We often think this time is it. But all we can do is help them get to where they say they want to be.”
Hamilton is based at the epicentre of Greater Victoria’s drug problem, the 900-block of Pandora Avenue, and is a passionate advocate for the people she works with.
In B.C., largely due to increased opioid abuse, drug deaths have shot up from around 20 a month through the 2000s to approximately 125 per month over the last two years.
In an attempt to reverse this trend, the streets have been flooded with the “overdose antidote” naloxone, often referred to by its brand name Narcan. In 2018, VicPD officers administered Narcan 39 times on 24 people, saving 22 lives.
While opioids often grab the headlines, as their natural consequences are overdose and death, crystal meth is also often used, leading to permanent brain damage and a declining ability of users to function independently.
“And the psychosis that is involved, is what we as a police department have to respond to. We get a number of calls where someone is waving around a weapon because they are ill and they are delusional, or hallucinating, and are putting the public and themselves at risk,” Hamilton said.
An effective rehab option is often a residential treatment centre where patients can enter for up to two years and break the familiar cycle of addiction, crime and jail. But there is no government residential treatment centre in Greater Victoria.
With nowhere to send homeless drug addicts and the city’s reluctance to tolerate downtown tent cities, police start their day moving people on.
“It’s frustrating to wake people up every morning and move them along with no solution to help them. And it’s wearing, as we’re not dealing with happy people; we’re dealing with dope sick individuals, people who don’t have access to a washroom and they’re not in a good place,” explained Hamilton.
With little extra funding available, police leaders, often under public pressure to do more, have introduced training programs to try bridge the gap. These highlight how trauma influences behaviour and help officers interact empathetically while retaining their decisiveness.
“We police officers joined this job to help people, and the lack of resources for people to address addiction issues is frustrating. Most of the people we deal with have experienced trauma in their lives and are very, very mentally ill. Someone who has schizophrenia has voices in their head that berate and demean them. To get the voices to stop they go on an antipsychotic that has a number of side effects that dull their normal senses. Often they want to feel something and they medicate with harder drugs, which offsets the effect of the psychiatric drug.”
Police bear the daily brunt of disrespect and anger as some drug users rail against their circumstances, perceived injustices and the effects of substance abuse.
Being a police officer requires a certain level of mental toughness and resilience, but the rise in hard drug use and decline in users’ health and behaviour means officers are now routinely exposed to danger.
A gob of spit in the eye or a fleck of blood can lead to communicable diseases, such as hepatitis or HIV. The gloves officers wear protect against knife slashes but are an inadequate defence against needle jabs, with dozens of B.C. police officers experiencing used-needle pokes leading to six months of anti-viral drug cocktails and an anxious wait for their families.
Skin exposure to opioid powders is now the biggest danger, with just a few grains of fentanyl or carfentanyl on a suspect’s jacket enough to kill an arresting officer. Police leadership now issues two Narcan sprays to their personnel – one for the public and one for each officer.
Police also face more public scrutiny than ever before and perform a role much expanded beyond traditional policing. First responders and police now regularly find themselves conducting street triage, trying to help aggressive or disturbed individuals.
Inevitably, some officers are feeling the strain.
“We have mental health training that says in your first five years you could see two or three dozen dead bodies, a dozen overdoses, and it might not affect you. Until the day you go to one and then it affects you. Slowly that creeps up to the point where you can’t get to sleep,” Hamilton said.
In efforts to combat lingering stigma about mental health issues, police forces conduct training, offer peer support and critical incident stress management initiatives where officers are contacted after distressing calls.
“From my perspective, we’re becoming too accepting of what is going on. We are getting numbed and it is becoming the new normal. And that is really, really sad. In my ideal world, there would be an outcry to government for funding on this systemic issue.”
This article is part five of a six-part special report on Greater Victoria’s opioid crisis. Find more at vicnews.com. For resources in Greater Victoria, find Black Press Media’s Overdose Prevention Guide online or pick up a hardcopy at our Victoria office, 818 Broughton St.