Nova Scotia

Bridgewater police to bill province for long hours spent in ERs on mental health calls

A municipal police force in Nova Scotia is asking the provincial government to pay up for officers who spend hours in emergency departments after responding to mental health calls.

The board of police commissioners for the Town of Bridgewater wrote to Health Minister Michelle Thompson in February, saying the force would invoice the province when officers stay with patients in the ER for more than two hours.

“Nothing’s happening, nothing’s changing, and it’s been an ongoing conversation for some time,” said Darren Lipsett, board chair, in an interview.

“It’s time … for the province to put their money where their mouth is, so to speak, to let them know that if our resources are tied up there then we should be billing them.”

Police officers in Nova Scotia are required to stay with patients until a medical examination is done under the province’s Involuntary Psychiatric Treatment Act. 

But in its letter to the health minister, the board said a wait of more than two hours impacts policing duties of the 27-member Bridgewater force, “posing a significant risk to general public safety.”

The busy emergency department at the South Shore Regional Hospital in Bridgewater, N.S., often takes overflow from other hospitals when their ERs close. (CBC)

Bridgewater isn’t the only police force in Canada to raise concerns about the time officers spend in hospital waiting rooms.

In Ottawa, a pilot program was announced earlier this year that would see special constables wait in hospital with someone having a mental health crisis, freeing up sworn police officers.

Deputy Chief Danny MacPhee of the Bridgewater Police Service said officers usually spend about four hours at the busy South Shore Regional Hospital with patients, but some waits are as long as nine hours.

The hospital does have a mental health unit but it serves nearby counties, and the emergency room often takes overflow from other hospitals when their ERs close.

“It’s a provincial health crisis — it’s not a crime spree,” he said. “So it’s not for us.”

MacPhee said it’s a health-care problem that needs a health-care response.

Having uniformed officers show up in a marked vehicle when someone is having a mental health emergency often escalates the situation, placing officers and residents at unnecessary risk, he said.

A white officer in uniform with a salt and pepper goatee has a black flat-topped police hat. He stands outside a brick building with the Bridgewater Police logo behind him
Bridgewater Police Service Deputy Chief Danny MacPhee says long ER wait times are a health-care issue, not a policing issue. (CBC)

In a small town where many people know each other, MacPhee said the police presence is especially stigmatizing.

“They’re sitting in that hospital room with armed police officers beside them, with their community looking at them,” MacPhee said.

He said security staff at the hospital aren’t adequately trained to handle people with mental health issues, so police officers must wait with patients even after they’ve been examined until they’re admitted and assigned a bed.

More than 100 hours in hospital

Numbers from Bridgewater police show that in 2021, officers spent about 180 hours in hospital with patients related to well-being calls and the Mental Health Act, and about 190 hours in 2022.

MacPhee said he knows other municipal forces have been tracking time in hospital and encouraged them to follow the lead of Bridgewater police and bill the province.

“A united message would be very valuable because it would show again the true cost of what this is, how it’s affecting us,” MacPhee said.

Bridgewater Mayor David Mitchell said he supports the move, noting that every dollar counts when policing is among the town’s largest expenses, hitting $5.6 million in 2024-25.

A bald man with glasses and facial hair.
Bridgewater Mayor David Mitchell says he’s hopeful the provincial government will figure out a better way to respond to mental health issues in rural areas. (CBC)

“It’s important for the taxpayers that they see that they’re not being charged for something that they shouldn’t be,” Mitchell said.

Provincial spokesperson Khalehla Perrault said the Office of Addictions and Mental Health is aware of police concerns on the issue, but has not had further discussion with the Bridgewater police force.

The province and Nova Scotia Health are making “significant improvements” in emergency care, said Perrault. Examples include increasing staff levels, adding more beds, assigning physician assistants and nurse practitioners to provide care in emergency departments, and adding care providers to support patients in waiting rooms.

Perrault also said the province is working on a pilot that will test civilian-led crisis responses, and another initiative that would provide mental health and addiction clinician support to first responders through the provincial crisis line, which would help triage patients during a crisis.

Police involvement in mental health calls

The Mass Casualty Commission has recommended that police in Nova Scotia not be involved with mental health calls. A 2022 report from a Halifax committee tasked with defining what it means to defund the police made the same suggestion. 

Halifax’s mobile mental health crisis team includes medical professionals working alongside plainclothes police, but it doesn’t run outside of the municipality. It also doesn’t operate around the clock, and the city plans to launch a community crisis response team that would include professionals like social workers who could respond to low-risk mental health calls or wellness checks.

Mitchell said he’s hopeful the move from Bridgewater police spurs the province into action, including the creation of mobile mental health units in rural areas.

One model in South Carolina has doctors trained as sworn police officers, Mitchell said, so they can treat people in distress immediately and save a trip to the hospital.

“There’s a cost savings to the health-care system to deal with it that way, right? Dealing with health and justice together instead of in the silos that they are,” Mitchell said.

Bridgewater police will be billing the province quarterly, and plan to send the first invoice in June.

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