Owen Sound Police Services Board chair addresses police defunding

(Owen Sound Police Service photo)

The chair of the Owen Sound Police Services Board said they have taken innovative steps to address mental health issues, but adds now is the time to start thinking about what more has to be done going forward.

John H. Thomson said any plan moving forward must take into consideration what a 30% defunding of police budgets would mean or look like.  He says years of defunding mental health and homelessness programs have left the police to deal with mental health issues.

He added the “defunding police” debates are often taking place in reaction to something that has taken years to evolve.  But he suggested that the current climate will undoubtedly lead to some significant changes to the current Community Safety and Policing Act 2019, which could now be delayed for a year or two.

He said a call to action needs to be made by those levels of government responsible for mental health; lower-tier municipalities cannot and should not be burdened with the years of
defunding mental health made by previous governments, and should lobby current governments for funding.

The Owen Sound Police Service (OSPS) has taken innovative steps to address mental health issues. In 2019 OSPS partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) to create the Mobile Mental Health and Addiction Response Team (MMHART). When a call is received for assistance, the MMHART team comprised of an Owen Sound police officer, most times in plain clothes, and a worker from the Canadian Mental Health Association attend. This collaboration is part of an ongoing strategy amongst local agencies to more appropriately address mental health crises. Unfortunately, the program is still only part-time as a result of reduced mental health funding.

Thomson explained, “police were not trained to deal with mental health problems. It was only as a result of people in crisis and no other alternative that mental health issues were downloaded to
the police. While there has been more dedicated training of late, it should not be their role or their job.  But he added, unfortunately with scope creep and a lack of alternatives, we have seen police dealing more and more with cases of mental health and the expansion of public order maintenance. Mental health workers, generally, work 9 to 5. When a person is experiencing a mental health crisis at two in the morning the only alternative is to call 911 for an Officer.”

He add, “I totally agree that more money should be spent on mental health and the homeless issues, but to slash police budgets is short-sighted and a knee jerk reaction at best when dealing with an issue that has been years in the making. If budgets are cut without an alternative in place, such as a network of mental health professionals to pick up the call at two in the morning, all you have is the same number of calls to be dealt with and a fewer number of Officers to deal with them, and we continue our downward spiral. We have not really addressed the issue. With calls for service steadily increasing, and mental health-related calls trending up, now is not the time to defund the only alternative people have. There needs to be some thoughtful, creative, and concrete action plans developed and an appropriate transition plan in place before we slash any budgets. The consequence of not having an alternative plan in place is a recipe for disaster.”

He concluded, “finally, what does an arbitrary plan to defund a police department by 30% mean or look like. For Owen Sound, where 90% of the Police Service’s budget represents salaries this means a reduction in officers. This would be at a time when the workload is only increasing, not only for calls for service, but additional work being imposed on the service by recent court decisions and legislative changes. Any plan to reduce the officer base at this time without a plan for the future is simply not logical and would be met with strong opposition from the Police Association of Ontario and the Ontario Police Arbitration Commission.”