The RCMP and Nunavut Justice Department are in early talks to send mental health or social workers on calls when police respond to people in distress, according to Nunavut’s top RCMP officer.
“We all recognize [the need], it’s just a matter of how we do it,” Chief Supt. Amanda Jones told CBC News.
Jones said a lot of media attention stemming from the movement to defund police has been negative, but she agrees with its emphasis on mental health needs.
“I totally agree with more mental health. I think the police have always said, we go to too many files that don’t really belong to us. But we’re the last one standing,” she said.
Jones made the comments while responding to recent media coverage on Nunavut’s high rate of police-related deaths.
Such deaths have claimed the lives of 16 people in Nunavut since 1999, giving the territory a higher rate than either of the other two territories, according to data collected by CBC News and analyzed by a criminologist.
The trend is particularly high in the last decade, when 13 of the 16 deaths occurred.
That makes Nunavut’s rate of police-related deaths more than nine times higher than Yukon’s in that time period and, for a point of reference outside the North, more than 30 times higher than Ontario’s rate.
Police-related deaths in this story refer to deaths in police custody, detention or during police interaction. These include all deaths where police were on the scene but may not have been directly responsible for a fatality.
Jones said the RCMP does not track such data specifically and, nationally, it does not employ statisticians.
But it does track caseloads and outcomes, and indexes of crime and violent crime — which are significantly above the national average in Nunavut.
She said she couldn’t explain the high rates of police-related deaths in Nunavut, nor why that trend is especially high in the last decade.
But Jones said the historical trauma that Inuit carry, notably in the last few generations, and related alcohol abuse and mental health challenges are likely part of the reason.
The RCMP can deploy more officers in response to higher crime rates, Jones said, but that doesn’t solve the root cause of most crimes in Nunavut, which she said is alcohol abuse related to trauma.
“Why do we have an alcohol problem? Well it’s trauma, it’s mental health. So if we’re not dealing with that, all we’re doing is putting a Band-Aid on,” Jones said.
Alcohol is involved in the majority of calls RCMP respond to in the territory.
“We have lots of training, we do de-escalation training, but we’re not the professionals in it. Our specialty is investigation and crime reduction,” said Jones.
Early conversations with a deputy minister of justice were “very supportive” Jones said.
“But obviously there’s other players that have to come to the table. We’re just at the very beginning.”
Jones said the RCMP would examine the trends of police-related deaths in Nunavut to better understand related factors.