Defunding Police and Mental Health

Owen Sound Police Logo

Defunding Police and Mental Health

These are the very early days of what I hope will be some very creative solutions to achieve the underlying goal of assisting with mental health issues. Waterloo Police Board is having the same discussions as Toronto, but none of the "Big Twelve" (larger police services in Ontario) are jumping to any action without considering what an alternative would look like, and that any plan moving forward must take into consideration what a 30% defunding of police budgets would mean or look like. The current climate will undoubtedly lead to some significant changes to the current Community Safety and Policing Act 2019. While this new act was originally to have been proclaimed in early 2020, it is now looking like 2021 and maybe even 2022 depending on what revisions there might be. I believe there will be changes.
As I mentioned, these are the very early days of the "defunding police" debates and some of the debates to date are taking place in reaction, not in planning, to something that has taken years to evolve especially in larger centers. An overnight solution is not readily available, but now is the time to start thinking about what has to be done going forward.

Over the years municipal, county, provincial and federal governments have "defunded" mental health and homelessness funding. Politically they called it downloading, and when it reached the download partners there was no money allocated in their budgets. Unfortunately this left only one alternative, call police to deal with mental health issues. 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.

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. The police core functions are found in section 4.2 of the Police Services Act which states adequate and effective police services must include, at a minimum, the following five police services: 1- Crime prevention, 2- Law enforcement, 3- Assistance to victims of crime, 4 - Public order maintenance, and 5- Emergency response. 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.

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 consequences of not having an alternative plan in place is a recipe for disaster.

And 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 work load 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.

John H. Thomson
Owen Sound Police Services Board

Check out what we've been playing!


Sign up for The Dock's Inside Scoop