Plains clothes and an unmarked police vehicle are among the tools of the trade Nanaimo RCMP’s new mental health liaison officer will use to try to limit anxiety and gain the trust of people experiencing mental health crises.
Const. Joshua Waltman transferred to Nanaimo in 2019 from Surrey where he worked with the Surrey Outreach Team on the Whalley Strip, home to a population of marginalized people experiencing homelessness.
“[It] was a team that would police the strip 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but their mandate was not to arrest people and put forward charges,” Waltman said. “The team, at that time, was created to do foot patrols due to the opioid crisis, to make sure the vulnerable, marginalized people were safe, to get to know the people that were down there.”
Team members were each tasked with contacting one person per day to get to know them. The ultimate goal was to connect them with supports they needed to get off the street and into recovery or housing or other programs or facilities that could help them.
Waltman estimates he helped get more than a dozen people off the streets, at least temporarily, during the year he worked with the outreach team.
“For whatever reasons … depending on their comfort [or] just because they’re so familiar with that street, a lot of them … ended up coming back, but for that few months they were looked after and taken care of and they received the support that they needed,” Waltman said. “You can’t give up on the first try because it didn’t work. You have to work hard and you can’t get jaded. You have to be a resilient police officer to do this kind of work.”
In Nanaimo he’ll be dealing with people from across society – not just with people experiencing homelessness – who find themselves in crisis and he’ll rely heavily on community partners with expertise in mental health, addiction and other resources that can help him in his work.
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Waltman won’t be dealing specifically with alcohol and drug addiction.
“Although mental health and drug and alcohol addiction, on paper, is in the same category, dealing with it practically is not the same, so I’ve made it clear that if it’s drug and alcohol related, that’s not my position right now,” he said. “My position is supporting people with mental health needs, so if they’re in crisis, maybe escalating, and we can get an early assessment, that’s where I’m going to be playing a role,” he said.
Attending mental health crisis calls personally will require him to quickly gain the trust of the people he’s trying to help, so as often as possible, he’ll dress in plain clothes and drive an unmarked police vehicle.
“When you’re dealing with people with mental health needs there’s already high anxiety when you have to deal with the police and often they’re feeling scared, so for me to be able to come in an unmarked vehicle and have to transport them, either to the hospital for a proper assessment or for me to even take them out for a coffee so that the next time there’s a little more trust, it should be done in an unmarked vehicle so that they have a little bit of dignity,” he said.
In the weeks ahead he and the detachment will be working out the logistics of his position.
“For the first couple of months it’s going to be me networking with stakeholders – people who play a role in supporting people with mental health needs – and then after that we’ll just hit the road running in trying to support people,” he said.