A screenshot of grainy surveillance video shows three uniformed police officers and a man laying on a brown brick floor. On the right there's a bench where prisoners would typically sit while getting booked. On the left there's a plexiglas barrier between the officers and a booking officer in an office.
Surveillance video from the booking area at Halifax Regional Police headquarters shows constables Justin Murphy (left), Donna Lee Paris (centre), and Ryan Morris (right) preparing Corey Rogers’ personal belongings for booking. — Photo: Screenshot/Nova Scotia Police Review Board/HRP

A new report from the city’s public safety advisor recommends moving ahead with a tailored sobering centre in the hopes of diverting some frequently-intoxicated people out of the drunk tank.

Sobering centres are safe places for people to sleep off the effect of drugs or alcohol. They’re sometimes located with detox centres or emergency shelters, and typically have healthcare workers on staff. The staff triage people to the hospital if they need medical attention, or to cells if they become violent. There are examples of sobering centres across Canada, including in Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Victoria.

The report by public safety advisor Amy Siciliano is a response to a February 2020 motion from Coun. Lindell Smith seeking a staff report looking into sobering centres, along with managed alcohol programs and the data on detentions for public intoxication in Halifax.

Smith made the motion after January 2020 presentations to the Board of Police Commissioners from Harry Critchley, vice-chair of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, on sobering centres and Dr. Leah Genge, who works at the Mobile Outreach Street Health (MOSH), Direction 180, and Spryfield Medical Centre, on managed alcohol programs.

In his presentation to the board, Critchley highlighted the cases of people dying as a result of their detention in Halifax Regional Police cells. Corey Rogers, whose death is the subject of a Police Review Board hearing currently underway in Dartmouth, died in June 2016 after he was placed in a cell with a spit hood over his head. And in 2013, John Burke died in hospital a few days after he was found unconscious in HRP cells. He’d fallen before he was arrested and suffered a brain bleed.

Both Rogers and Burke had been to the cells before. According to Siciliano’s report to council, “repeat intakes,” people like Rogers and Burke, make up 35-45% of intakes, but only 14% of the total number of people being detained. Put differently, the same few people are often placed in cells, while the majority of people there are going once.

For this reason, Siciliano has recommended a split approach to council.

To deal with the repeat intakes, the municipality could use sobering centres. Siciliano’s report notes there are two types: universal and tailored.

“The primary difference is that the latter model caters to subpopulations affected by public intoxication,” Siciliano wrote, meaning it’s tailored more to people repeatedly going to cells or who are homeless.

“This model is designed to better service individuals who are not well serviced within the existing continuum of care. Other key reasons for this recommendation include: lack of certainty around clientele; the level of complexity needed to design and implement a universal model; and the substantial financial investment for a universal model.”

To try to curb the total number of people going into cells, she recommended “carefully balanced, evidence-based and agile policies” related to the downtown bar scene, but didn’t really get into specific recommendations.

“Literature documents effectiveness of policies such as outlet density, bar opening hours, advertising, and responsible server training in reducing harmful effects of alcohol consumption (on the intoxicated persons themselves and other community members affected by secondary effects of intoxication, which may include aggression, higher risk of domestic violence, impaired driving or others),” Siciliano wrote.

On managed alcohol programs — giving people with severe alcohol use disorder controlled amounts of alcohol on a schedule to avoid withdrawal while also reducing binging and non-beverage alcohol consumption — Siciliano recommended council leave it to the province.

Nova Scotia Health is currently funding a managed alcohol program through MOSH, Siciliano wrote.

Siciliano’s full recommendation for council:

That Halifax Regional Council direct the Chief Administrative Officer (or designate) to work with:

  1. Provincial government staff and other key stakeholders to examine potential changes to existing alcohol policies and regulations at the municipal and provincial levels to reduce harmful patterns of alcohol consumption;
  2. Partners to develop options for Regional Council’s consideration for establishment of a sobering centre in HRM.

Siciliano’s report contains a multitude of data on the use of HRP cells for public intoxication. It’s basically what the Halifax Examiner asked for in a Freedom of Information request last year, when Halifax police asked for $40,000 in fees.

Overall, the number of people being detained due to public intoxication is on the decline, and plummeted as bars were closed due to COVID-19 in 2020. There are limitations on the data provided to Siciliano; there is no race-based data on cells intakes.

Council meets Tuesday at 10am.

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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  1. Social services are a provincial responsibility and HRM should stick to what the legislation allows them to do.