With Canadians arrested for intoxication dying in cells, some cities find alternatives to jail

When the Kenora Makwa Patrol comes across someone who is intoxicated, their first approach is not to call police, but to make sure the person is OK and has a safe place to sleep for the night. 

“We won’t take them to the jail because … that’s someplace nobody really wants to go,” said Marshall Hardy, the manager of the street outreach group in the northwestern Ontario city of Kenora.

The best place would be for them to be at home,” he said. “But you know, a lot of these people that we deal with don’t have homes.”

Instead, the patrol group works with Ontario Provincial Police to get people to the local detox centre, a hospital or a shelter. 

The end result is fewer intoxicated people ending up in Kenora jails cells for the night, said Jeffrey Duggan, detachment commander and inspector for the Kenora OPP.

“Their job is to proactively patrol the city of Kenora in those spots where people do hang out or drink … and to check on them,” Duggan said of Kenora Makwa.

Investigation into deaths in custody

A CBC News investigation found that 61 Canadians have died in police custody after being arrested related to intoxication since 2010.

Most of those people were detained in rural police detachments, often in communities where there are no detox or sobering centres.

Kenora now has the Morningstar detoxification centre, thanks to co-operation between police, local government and health providers.

“Everybody that’s nonviolent and is not charged criminally goes to the detox centre,” said Duggan.

“If they can walk, if they can communicate, we can call [Makwa Patrol],” who can take them to the centre, he said.

Jeffrey Duggan, detachment commander and inspector for the Kenora Ontario Provincial Police, shows a checklist that is completed when the OPP detain a person. (Jaison Empson/CBC )

Intoxicated people can be dropped off at any time at the centre, which has blankets, beds for those who need to stay overnight and staff trained to deal with people who have addictions.

People are also monitored during their stay.

Duggan said in the past, jail was the only option for dealing with intoxicated people in Kenora. That changed after the 2016 death of 16-year-old Delaine Copenace, who was missing for over a month before her body was discovered in Lake of the Woods in Kenora.

Her death inspired the formation of the Kenora Makwa Patrol as a way to help vulnerable people on the street. It originally started as the Kenora chapter of the Bear Clan Patrol, a citizen patrol group that started in Winnipeg and now has several chapters across Canada.

Kenora’s Morningstar is one of more than a dozen sobering centres across Canada. Advocates and law enforcement officials say these centres are a better place to house an intoxicated person than a jail cell. 

“In the end, there’s better outcomes for people,” said Duggan.

‘They’re not criminals’: former deputy chief

Every province in Canada has legislation that allows police to detain someone who is intoxicated if officers believe the person is a danger to themselves or to others.

That gives law enforcement a mechanism to pick up someone who has passed out on a cold winter’s night and house them in a holding cell to sleep it off, or to remove an unruly person from a situation where they could hurt someone.

But in practice, it has created a structure where police resources are being spent responding to such calls, said David Thorne, a retired Winnipeg deputy police chief.

“You’ve heard the statistic that 85 per cent of what police do has nothing to do with crime. It’s the human social issues — public disorder, nuisance,” he said in an interview. 

“We’re just dealing with people who are down on their luck. They’re not criminals.”

David Thorne is shown in a 2016 file photo. The former deputy police chief says people arrested for intoxication are often ‘down on their luck,’ but aren’t criminals. (CBC)

Across Canada, law enforcement officials use public intoxication laws to detain over 30,000 people annually, according to a CBC analysis of data from RCMP and several other police forces.

Thorne said on an average night in Winnipeg, he saw more than 300 calls for service, with 50 patrol cars available to respond. Many officers spent shifts at hospitals and shelters rather than responding to crimes, he said.

In Winnipeg, the non-profit Main Street Project offers an alternative to a jail cell by housing intoxicated people in its protective care facility.

Other cities have also found alternatives to jailing intoxicated people.

Vancouver, Calgary find alternatives

Vancouver has a program called Saferide, which has been dealing with the most vulnerable people in the city’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood for the past 25 years.

The service, which operates seven days a week, co-ordinates with police, ambulance, shelters, emergency rooms, detox units, sobering centres and supervised injection sites to transport individuals who live with addictions but haven’t committed a crime.

“[When] we get them, they’re barely barely clothed, and they don’t have any idea where they are,” said Saferide’s David Vega.

“Can you imagine, if Saferide didn’t take them or the police, what may possibly happen to them?” 

Bill Wong is the manager of the Vancouver Recovery Club’s Saferide program. Wong says Saferide can pick up over a dozen people a night and bring them to safe places rather than a jail cell. (Submitted by Vancouver Recovery Club)

Police in Vancouver “just love us,” says Bill Wong, Saferide’s program manager.

“We save the city a lot of manpower hours,” he told CBC in an interview.

Saferide, which is run by the Vancouver Recovery Club and funded through the Vancouver Coastal Health authority, gets an average of 15 calls a night, Wong said.

In Calgary, Alpha House opened in 1981 after an increase of intoxicated people in police cells. It started with 50 sobering centre beds and 20 detox beds.

It’s since expanded to 120 sobering centre beds, 30 beds for detox, 12 transitional housing beds and a health clinic.

According to a 2015 University of Calgary study, Alpha House had a dramatic effect in helping individuals who were intoxicated in public and reducing the burden on police and hospitals over a 12-month period.

The study says Alpha House clients had a 93 per cent drop in the average number of days they spent in jail compared to the year before. Interactions between clients and police reportedly dropped by more than 70 per cent.

“It’s not necessarily just a sobering centre by itself that’s generating all these positive results,” Alina Turner, the study’s author, told CBC.

What makes a difference is “the fact the sobering centre is couched in a bigger effort that includes things like housing-first programing and cultural supports,” she said.

Vancouver Police Department Sgt. Steve Addison said in a statement that officers know addiction is a mental health issue and relying on other services for intoxicated people “is a much better alternative to housing someone in police custody.”

Thorne compares the ideal response to mental health and addiction issues to a bus.

“Police shouldn’t be driving the bus,” he said. “They should be sitting at the back and ready to get off to help at any time.”

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