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Halifax Regional Police ought to be looking at alternatives to the drunk tank that are working in Canada, rather than asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra funding to enhance a flawed model that criminalizes addiction, says a Halifax expert.
“It’s really clear that the drunk tank model is not helping people seek treatment, it’s not helping people with their quality of life,” said addictions doctor Leah Genge, who treats homeless people almost exclusively. "This is a chronic medical illness and having an alcohol use disorder is not a crime. Why are we treating it with a judicial lens?”
HRP is asking Halifax regional council to approve its proposed operating budget of $90,287,800, including $669,300 in new funding for eight additional sergeants. Four of those sergeants would provide 24 hours a day, seven days a week supervision of its lockup or drunk tank that has come under severe criticism recently.
In November, special constables Dan Fraser and Cheryl Gardiner were found guilty of criminal negligence causing death, three years after Corey Rogers, 41, died in his cell after being arrested and held in lockup for public intoxication.
Chief Dan Kinsella argues that the additional hires would address many risks associated with holding people in its drunk tank.
But Genge is pushing for some of the proposed funding to pay for a Managed Alcohol Program. Currently, 23 programs are running in the country that offer an alternative treatment-based approach for those with serious alcohol addiction that repeatedly end up in the drunk tank. The approach is simple and humane, providing participants a regular dose of alcohol in a shelter-type setting.
A February 2019 McMaster University study measured the effectiveness of managed alcohol programs across the country, showing that they are effective by reducing participants' contact with police, emergency room visits, and hospital admissions, in addition to improvements in quality of life and reduced alcohol-related harm.
Genge said the program would serve 25 to 30 homeless people who are past the point of recovery and often resort to consuming non-beverage alcohol, such as mouthwash and hand sanitizer. While under constant supervision they would be given measured amounts of alcohol at regular intervals.
“We’re talking about people experiencing chronic homelessness, chronic severe alcohol use disorder where all other models of addiction therapy have not worked. These are people that are often homeless for 20 to 25 years", said Genge.
Genge will pitch the program to the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners on Monday. She’ll also be joined by Harry Critchley, vice-chairman of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, who’ll be proposing a sobering centre in the city as another alternative to the drunk tank.
Like Genge, he believes public intoxication often requires a medical response, not a prison cell.
"But we should think of this more proactively in terms of how we can reduce the number of people who are ending up there," said Critchley. "We shouldn’t treat intoxication as a moral problem; treat it for what it is, a medical problem."
A sobering centre works as an emergency overnight shelter program that provides a safe place for those under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol to sober up. Like managed alcohol programs, sobering centres are run in several jurisdictions across the country and are supported by several Canadian police forces.
Critchley said evidence suggests sobering centres are relatively inexpensive and reduce contact with emergency health services and police but also help vulnerable people connect to treatment and housing.
Halifax Regional Police spokesman John MacLeod wouldn’t comment on the merits of both proposed programs but said prisoner care is a priority for the force. He said 1,594 people were held in HRP custody for public intoxication in 2019.
“We are always evaluating various available approaches and best practices; however, these (funding) asks are about addressing what we see as critical operational needs," said MacLeod.
Barbara MacLean, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said regulations outline the safe custody and medical attendance requirements for lock-up facilities and that it's up to individual police departments to manage and operate their own lockups and develop their own operational policies and procedures to keep people in custody safe.
"Police have the authority to use their discretion to manage their operations as they see fit, and this is a Halifax Regional Police decision,“ said MacLean.