Adam: The City of Ottawa should fund a mental health emergency response project

While police officers are vital to ensuring community safety, some emergency calls may be better handled by professionals trained in addiction or mental health. But where does the money come from?

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Again, the Ottawa police budget is at the crossroads of community groups that oppose any financial growth in 2022, but this time it’s not about unfunding the police.

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What these groups want is a budget freeze to redirect funds to a new police model that eliminates, or at least limits, the use of force in handling cases involving mental health and addiction. It is a cause to be supported.

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

This change has long been anticipated, but the challenge for the police board is how to thread the needle. It is important to correct, because whatever their shortcomings – and there are many – the police remain indispensable for community welfare.

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Across Canada, and indeed North America, cities are reimagining policing to ensure better public safety and accountability. In particular, there is a growing recognition that police do not necessarily have to be first responders for calls involving people with mental health or addiction problems. Police officers simply do not have the proper training, and often their shooting policies have caused tragic consequences. Benefiting from mental health or addiction experts and organizations in such circumstances will not only save the police unnecessary mourning, but may save lives.

In Toronto for example, a council approved a pilot project for a community-based emergency response system. And Ottawa police seem to agree with the need for change. “We are very much in favor of other agencies taking some significant part of the requirement that has been put to the police service,” Sloly says. “For whatever combination of reasons, this city hasn’t made much progress on it … We’re asking for it. Just do that.”

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Police board chair Diane Deans says while policing is essential to ensuring community safety and well-being, it is equally important to recognize that some calls, such as those involving people with mental health problems, can be better handled by professionals trained in those fields. And the board thinks the time to do this is now. “I think what we need to do is release some dollars that the police would take otherwise this year, and ask the city to create an alternative 24-hour response system on a pilot basis,” Deans says.

She says the board will scrutinize the budget with a fine-toothed comb to “see what we can do to cut those numbers while fulfilling our mandate and providing effective police services.” She hopes the city will intervene with some funding as well.

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A big part of the problem is that employee costs make up 82 percent of the Ottawa police ’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 poor 18 per cent of the budget from which to make any cuts and that makes it particularly difficult, something board member Sandy Smallwood alluded to recently. “The over-reliance on police to deal with issues that are fundamentally social issues has to stop, and if we really want to impact the fund, we have to deal with our biggest object: our employee costs,” he says.

Another problem is how to overcome the lack of trust that has long worsened police-community relations, and find a common ground on this issue. This really shouldn’t be a proposal of us-against-them. It is one on which the police and the community should be on the same page. This is a budget time for the city as well, and this may be the time for the council to step in with some funds and get this pilot up and running.

Muhammad Adam is an Ottawa journalist and commentator. Reach him at nylamiles48@gmail.com.

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