Town Coun. Brian Willows wants a clearer understanding on the RCMP policy toward picking up and holding people heavily intoxicted.
He said during a council meeting earlier this month that incidents of excessive drunkenness in the streets have been noted in the community.
Willows complained during the June 15 regular council meeting’s May policing report that the Hay River Regional Health Centre has been taking in four to five heavily intoxicated people a night in recent weeks and that it is beginning to wear on the morale of both nursing staff and fire department and ambulance volunteers.
He said he is unable to get answers on why the RCMP appears to have stopped using cells for people who are picked up under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
“When was the policy made that the RCMP would no longer operate a drunk tank, for the lack of a better word,” he said. “I’m just wondering is that a national policy directive that this is something that they no longer do or is that a divisional decision where these things are just happening in the North?”
There was no clear understanding around the council table, either, but the policy has has created “unintended consequences” on first responders doing their work in the community, Willows said.
“This is all new,” Willows said. “I don’t think it comes as any surprise to anyone that have been downtown in the last couple months, that the face of our community has changed drastically.”
Willows’ question was relayed to the NWT RCMP by The Hub.
Marie York-Condon, media spokesperson for the NWT RCMP G Division said in a statement that police officers are trying to avoid using cells unless there is criminal behaviour involved.
“NT RCMP is committed to working with partner agencies to place persons whom are unable to care for themselves, or at risk, in appropriate safe environments,” she said.
“Hay River RCMP is committed to finding alternative solutions to community based issues with the support services available in the community. RCMP is working towards ensuring addiction and homelessness are not criminalized and only those who have committed a crime will be lodged in the RCMP’s cells.”
The monthly RCMP report provided to town council states that the issue is a problem that is draining police resources.
“Of note, there has been a marked increase in the number of calls for service received related to vagrancy and intoxicated subjects in public,” the report states.
Police say that one individual was addressed 20 times while another was picked up 25 times.
“In all instances, public intoxication was the paramount concern reported and the police response is generally to locate a safe place for the individual(s) to be escorted which is very time consuming,” states the report. “This is very taxing on police resources which are diverted from the three identified priorities, however a reality that cannot be ignored.”
No police representatives were present for the meeting, nor was Mayor Kandis Jameson in attendance. But other councillors agreed with Willows’ comments.
“The downtown core is really impacting the community and the loitering that’s going on downtown is not acceptable,” agreed Coun. Steve Anderson.
Terry Rowe, president of the Hay River Chamber of Commerce said he has been in contact with downtown business owners who are members. They say it “isn’t much of an issue.
”Of course we see some loitering and maybe public intoxication but the local police respond well with these issues and usually know the individuals well and seem to have a rapport with them,” he said.
“Individuals that loiter are community members and are respectful when treated with respect.”
The Hub attempted to interview Willows but he referred all questions to Jameson.
When reached on June 18, she said she was expecting to raise the issue with the RCMP this week. However she said that she is concerned about the strain on the town’s volunteer fire and ambulance crew.
“I think it is going to take partnerships to figure out how to deal with this. It is an issue.” she said, emphasising that her emergency personnel are donating their time and have full time jobs. “If we have a lot of calls it puts a lot of strain on ambulance system when they are taken to hospital and they take a lot of the stress on.”
Dale Snow, acting CEO of the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority said that it isn’t uncommon for the health centre to assess and treat people under the influence of drugs and alcohol. This has especially been the case since the town’s night homeless shelter closed in April.
“Since the closure of the night shelter, we have noticed an increase in the number of vulnerable clients that we see, assess and treat for various medical concerns,” he said.
“The increase in COVID cases across Canada during the past few months has placed an extra strain on our Territorial healthcare system resulting in more client admissions, increased bed needs, and thus more expectations on our already busy staff.”