Less police involvement, more programs in new City of Ottawa safety strategy

·3 min read
The new community safety plan aims to see Ottawa police officers respond to fewer mental health crises. (Olivier Plante/CBC - image credit)
The new community safety plan aims to see Ottawa police officers respond to fewer mental health crises. (Olivier Plante/CBC - image credit)

A City of Ottawa committee has approved a strategy to tackle issues such as poverty and mental health that relies less on police, even if the province hasn't offered extra money yet to help make that shift.

The Ontario government is requiring all municipalities approve something called a community safety and well-being plan, and Ottawa's is coming in slightly late for the July deadline.

The plan falls under the Police Services Act because the province is trying to move away from the practice of police sent to incidents that aren't criminal. Instead, other organizations will soon deal with the root causes of problems before they become high risk.

Ottawa's version sets out broad goals tailored to this city that include having fewer people use food banks, informing women and others who face gender-based violence about available resources, and seeing police deal with mental health crises less often.

"What you have before you sets you up to have a co-ordinated approach of a lot of things that we've been trying to achieve ... in different silos," said Anthony Di Monte, the outgoing general manager of emergency and protective services.

The City of Ottawa and its public health unit already run a long list of programs, including a 10-year housing and homelessness plan, an anti-racism secretariat, and a new "guiding council" aimed at developing a mental health strategy that has evolved beyond the Ottawa Police Service.

The upcoming 2022 budget will include money for four positions to lay out the gaps, and how to pay for programs to deal with what might be missing. Funding from other levels of government would be required, Di Monte said.

Taylor Simmons/CBC
Taylor Simmons/CBC

Health centres offer ideas

At committee, community health and resource centres spoke about findings from their own co-ordinated report about re-imagining safety in the community, and gave councillors a list of projects and their costs.

The report's lead researcher, Sean Meagher, described many police interventions involve youth who are homeless or facing mental health challenges.

"Picking up youth and charging them and then releasing them, and then picking them up again ... doesn't make anybody safer or improve anybody's lives," he told councillors.

"It's a much better use of tax dollars to invest in things that produce positive outcomes."

The health centres listed a number of ways to fill gaps, such as $1 million for a new drop-in centre to give people experiencing homelessness a place to go during the day, or $2.2 million to expand the Youth Services Bureau's mobile crisis team so it's available around the clock.

Councillors, too, were keen to see something happen with this provincially mandated strategy.

"I don't want to see this plan develop and then just sit on a shelf," said Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, and city staff assured him they also consider its work urgent.

Coun. Diane Deans, who chairs both the Ottawa Police Services Board and Crime Prevention Ottawa, saw the community safety and wellness plan as a "foundational document" and said the city needs to better fund programs to help avoid incidents where police get involved.

"Too often we resort to our police service to help keep our community safe," she said. "Police are responding to calls by default, not necessarily because they are the best response."

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