Adam: The City of Ottawa should fund the Mental Health Crisis Response Project

While policing is indispensable to ensuring the safety of the community, some emergency calls can be handled better by professionals trained in addiction or mental health. But where should the money come from?

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Once again, the Ottawa police budget is at the crossroads for community groups opposed to any funding increase in 2022, but this time it is not about defining the police.

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What these groups want is a freeze on the budget to redirect funds to a new police model that eliminates or at least limits the use of force to deal with cases involving mental health and addiction. It is a cause worth supporting.

The $ 346.5 million budget proposal includes an additional $ 14.7 million in funding – a 2.86 percent increase from last year, which translates into a $ 19 increase in property taxes for the average Ottawa homeowner. Chief Peter Sloly says the budget strikes the right balance and warns that a freeze will cost jobs and hamper effective policing. But community groups disagree, saying there is room in the budget to find funding for an alternative crisis response system.

This change is long overdue, but the challenge for the Police Department is how to thread the needle. It is important to get it right, because despite their shortcomings – and there are many – the police are still indispensable for the welfare of society.

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Across Canada, and indeed North America, cities are recreating policing to ensure better public safety and accountability. In particular, there is a growing recognition that police do not necessarily have to be first aiders for calls involving people with mental health or addiction problems. Police officers just do not have the right training, and often their shot-first policy has led to tragic consequences. Referring to mental health or addiction experts and organizations in such circumstances will not only save the police unnecessary grief, but potentially save lives.

In Toronto, for example, the Council has approved a pilot project for a community-based crisis response. And the police in Ottawa seem to agree on the need for change. “We are very much in favor of other bodies taking on a significant part of the demand that has been made of the police,” says Sloly. “Whatever the combination of reasons, this city has not progressed significantly on it… We beg for it. Just do it.”

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Police Chairman Diane Deans says that while policing is essential to ensuring the safety and well-being of society, it is equally important to recognize that some calls, such as those involving people with mental health problems, can be better handled by trained professionals within these areas. And the board believes the time to do this is now. “I believe what we need to do is free up some dollars that the police would otherwise take this year and ask the city to set up an alternative 24-hour response system on a pilot basis,” Deans said.

She says the board will review the budget with a fine comb to “see what we can do to trim these numbers while fulfilling our mandate and providing effective policing services.” She hopes the city will step in with some funds as well.

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A big part of the problem is that staff costs make up 82 percent of the Ottawa police’s gross budget. Most of the 2022 budget increase – $ 11 million out of $ 14 million – is for increased labor costs due to wage arbitration. This leaves a paltry 18 percent of the budget from which to cut, and that makes it particularly difficult, something board member Sandy Smallwood alluded to recently. “The excessive reliance on the police to solve problems, which are fundamentally social issues, must stop, and if we really want to influence the bottom line, we have to solve our biggest item: our staff costs,” he says.

Another problem is how to get past the lack of trust that has long deteriorated the relationship between the police and society, and find common ground on this issue. This really should not be a us-against-them proposal. It is one where the police and society should be on the same page. This is also budget time for the city, and it may be time for the municipality to step in with some funds and get this pilot started.

Mohammed Adam is a journalist and commentator in Ottawa. Reach him at nylamiles48@gmail.com.

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