Mental health calls double this past quarter, traffic accidents quintuple during traffic rerouting

By Steve Hubrecht
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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the diversion of TransCanada traffic through the Columbia Valley has kept the local RCMP detachment busy, and then some, Invermere council heard during the RCMP’s quarterly report.

The total number of calls to the RCMP this past quarter is up quite significantly as compared with the same quarter last year (it was only at the tail end of the January-March quarter last year, in mid to late March, that the COVID-19 pandemic truly hit the valley), outlined Columbia Valley RCMP Sergeant Darren Kakuno at Invermere’s Tuesday, May 11 council meeting. Calls pertaining to mental health in particular have shot up dramatically, nearly doubling. At the same time, in the past month, the Columbia Valley RCMP have dealt with a huge spike in local motor vehicle accidents, stemming from the rerouting of all cross-country traffic south from Castle Junction down Highway 93 to Radium and then north back up to Golden on Highway 95, while the TransCanada is closed for twinning upgrades in the Kicking Horse Canyon between Field and Golden.

“We have noticed it’s obviously been a lot busier, and our calls have gone up as a result of this diversion,” Kakuno told council.

The TransCanada was scheduled to be closed from April 12 to May 14 this spring. During that same time frame last year (when there was no traffic diversion), the Columbia Valley RCMP saw 10 traffic accidents here in the valley, including seven major collisions. This year, from April 12 to May 10 (the day before Kakuno presented the report to council) the local detachment saw 52 traffic accidents, including 17 major collisions.

Councillor Greg Anderson recalled that the local detachment had been trying to get extra staff resources to help deal with the higher traffic volumes during the TransCanada closure, that council had lent its support to that effort, and asked Kakuno if they had been successful.

Kakuno replied unfortunately not, but that traffic services RCMP members based in Cranbrook and Golden had been helping out the Columbia Valley by sending patrols further north or south than they normally would, which allowed the Columbia Valley detachment to have RCMP coverage in Kootenay National Park on most days.

Indeed Kakuno noted that the marked increase in workload has in fact come while the local detachment has been short-staffed, as it has been operating with a single corporal since the long-serving Corporal Brent Ayers retired in January. Fortunately, a replacement — Corporal Jeff Witzke — will be arriving in the Columbia Valley later this summer in a lateral transfer from Whistler. Kakuno said it bodes well to have a corporal come in with previous experience working in a resort community, as “he knows what he is getting into.”

Kakuno explained that he’s also been encouraging the local detachment’s general duty members, not just the traffic services members, to be on the highways when they can, to increase police presence on the roads.

In terms of the increase in general calls, Kakuno outlined that during the fourth quarter (January-March) in Invermere last year, the RCMP had 156 calls. In the fourth quarter this year, that number increased to 201. Kakuno noted that the pandemic is almost certainly playing a role in this increase. Mental health calls in particular, had jumped to 45 for the fourth quarter this year, as compared with 23 in the fourth quarter last year. Bylaws complaints have increased to 23 for the fourth quarter this year, as compared with 13 in the fourth quarter last year, with Kakuno pointing out “people are paying more attention to gatherings, and are more inclined to report parties because of the COVID restrictions.”

Looking at the total number of cases the RCMP has dealt with in the calendar year (as opposed to just the fourth quarter), from Jan. 1 to May 10 last year, the RCMP had 998 files. Over the same period this year, the RCMP had 1,217 files — an increase of roughly 20 per cent.

“It’s been a busy spring for us. I’m hoping it’s going to slow down,” said Kakuno, adding that the bigger workload has led him to add ‘employee wellness’ to the detachment priorities.

“Everybody’s had a difficult year. It’s been difficult on our members too,” he said, explaining that with so much going on, and being short-staffed, he frequently has to call in police officers on their days off, on short notice. They always come and never complain, said Kakuno, “but it’s wearing on them.”

Councillors commended Kakuno for taking employee wellness seriously, to which he responded that he has to take it seriously, since he can’t afford to have police officers get sick or burnt out from constantly doing far more than they should.