Community service providers slam report on reinvented public safety

“The basic principle is that we send police to do a lot of things that they are not the best trained or the best prepared to do and it is expensive and inefficient.”

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A study commissioned by the Ottawa Police Service has sparked the ire of some community service providers and contributed to the debate about the role the police should play in a redesigned public safety model.

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The study, a “social impact audit,” was conducted by an Alberta startup, Helpseeker, and aimed to map “the social safety net ecosystem” in Ottawa. Its purpose was to track the funding available in Ottawa to help vulnerable people, including amounts spent by charities and funds given to social services and programs.

Its findings, presented at the Ottawa Police Services Board meeting on Monday, showed that $6.8 billion was pouring into Ottawa’s social safety net each year, a figure that appears to highlight a disconnect : An abundance of funds flowing into the city to support the vulnerable while continuing housing and mental health crises appear to be worsening.

“Some things, I think, could be repurposed to deal with the current crisis,” said Dr. Alina Turner, co-founder and co-president of HelpSeeker Technologies. “It’s a special circumstance to take a deeper look at all of these components and piece them together in a way that makes sense to the people we’re meant to help.”

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The audit serves as evidence, Turner argued, that systemic reform is needed — not just of the police, but of the entire social safety net — of how Ottawa supports its homeless population, the poor, those with mental illnesses and drug addicts, among others.

This reform, in his view and in the view of Chief Peter Sloly, based on his past statements at police services board meetings, must be a collaborative effort between some social service providers and the police.

“The cool thing is that the police are at the table to do business differently,” Turner said. “What we have been saying for a very long time, we need to change their response, and to seize this opportunity, we will need everyone to do business differently. You can’t just change one part of the system without changing the larger whole.

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But some who work in Ottawa’s community health services sector reject Turner’s vision. They argue that the social impact audit was misleading and say that with further investment in the services they already provide, a community health response could replace the police entirely.

Michelle Hurtubise, executive director of the Centretown Community Health Centre, said the $6.8 billion cited by the social impact audit does not provide a realistic picture of the services and supports available in Ottawa. This figure included funding for international charities that are based in Ottawa but do not provide services here; it also included billions allocated, among other things, to employment insurance and old age security.

“We were concerned that the report itself would not use the correct numbers and therefore the analysis and recommendations that are presented would not be reliable,” Hurtubise said. “We’re not talking about this funding as being able to make a difference by responding to a 2 a.m. crisis call with someone who’s in distress on the street.”

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Hurtubise supports a different approach to public safety reform, outlined in another report released this month on behalf of 12 community health and resource centers. This report, “Rethinking Community Safety in Ottawa,” examines existing services and explores how they could be expanded – with revamped municipal funding – to support some of the tasks currently performed by police.

“The basic principle,” Hurtubise said, “is that we send police to do a lot of things that they are not the best trained or the best prepared to do and that are expensive and ineffective.”

Sean Meagher, a Toronto-based researcher who led work on the Rethinking Community Safety report, said Ottawa is already lagging behind some other Canadian cities, such as Toronto and Montreal, which have launched pilot projects to see how community groups can take some calls that the police don’t need to take.

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Some of this work is surprisingly inexpensive, he said, estimating that between $4 million and $6 million would be needed to expand the community health system and institute mobile non-police crisis response teams in Ottawa. .

Toronto's Sean Meagher, who led the work on the Rethinking Community Safety report, says Ottawa is already lagging behind some other Canadian cities, such as Toronto and Montreal, which have launched pilot projects to see how community groups can take certain calls that the police do not take.  need to take.
Toronto’s Sean Meagher, who led the work on the Rethinking Community Safety report, says Ottawa is already lagging behind some other Canadian cities, such as Toronto and Montreal, which have launched pilot projects to see how community groups can take certain calls that the police do not take. need to take. Photo by Dave Abel /Postmedia

These teams do not yet exist. Until they do and become part of the city’s public safety fabric — with the ability to coordinate and respond to crises — the police will continue to be the ones to respond to mental health crises amid the night. But Meagher said that was exactly the problem: Community health and resource centers cannot take over from the police because they lack the necessary funding.

“It’s not going to work,” he said, “if the police say, ‘We have to keep getting money to do this work and we’ll keep doing it until the demand is out. somehow moved by other people who don’t. have the funding to do it, who don’t have the staff to do it.

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Sloly signaled his willingness to partner with community groups to develop a system where police and community service providers work closely together. But many service providers in Ottawa do not want to work with the OPS.

“Not everyone is going to want to work with the Ottawa Police on their transformation journey,” Turner said. “If you don’t have that partnership, it’s really hard to deliver services differently because nobody wants to talk to you…I think we have lots and lots of groups in Ottawa that say, ‘Let’s do this, let’s dig in there- inside”, and then there will be some who will not be comfortable.

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Jill E. Washington