The Ottawa Police Service has started looking at how to get back to its core roles of investigating and fighting crimes, while leaving other functions that have crept into police officers' jobs to experts in other fields.
"When a large percentage of your calls for service don't deal with criminal activity — they're all from a social perspective — that's a problem," Chief Charles Bordeleau told CBC News.
"We've inherited that."
Bordeleau said policing has become increasingly complex over the years, with a CBC News study showing it’s also become twice as expensive in the last decade.
Part of the extra costs has to do with court decisions and inquest recommendations that require extra investigative steps and paperwork.
But the police chief also said de-institutionalization of people with mental illness has led to officers spending an increasing amount of time doing what is essentially social work.
Police often not the best option for mental health support
"A lot of the people with mental illness have come back to our communities and live in our communities. And I think that’s great," said Bordeleau.
"But there are a lot of supports that are not there for them. A lot of the social service agencies are facing some critical budget cuts."
Yet using police officers, paid through municipal property taxes, is often not the best nor the cheapest option, Bordeleau said.
For instance, he called it "frustrating" for police to escort people with mental illness to hospital, as required by the Mental Health Act, and wait hours in emergency wards until they’re taken over by the health care system.
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Police across the country are trying to figure out how to control escalating costs and avoid scenarios experienced in the United States and United Kingdom, where police services were forced to make deep cuts.
Ottawa’s police services board chair Eli El-Chantiry said he wants the province to centrally negotiate salaries with all police services.
Ottawa MPP and Labour Minister Yasir Naqvi said those decisions are best left to municipalities.
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"We're at an important juncture in policing," said Bordeleau. "I think it's incumbent on us and the responsible thing for us to do, to properly assess what we are doing and how we’re doing it."
Unprecedented review of OPS system
The Ottawa Police Service has just begun a review, unlike any it has ever undertaken, to rethink what police do, how often people deal with police and how they can make the whole system leaner.
"Our intent is not to say, ‘We're not doing this anymore’ and dump it," Bordeleau said, adding his goal is to work with other groups and share resources to better address problems.
He pointed to how a Children’s Aid Society worker is now embedded with the police youth section.
Bordeleau also highlighted a police partnership with the Ottawa Hospital that tries to reduce repeat calls to police from people who find themselves in crisis frequently.
In other cases, Bordeleau questioned whether police should be involved at all, such as when they tranquilize large animals or spend hours guarding sites in cars.
"Guarding a crime scene at 2 (a.m.) and paying them what we pay them, is that the best use of our resources?" said Bordeleau.
Union would fight ‘outsourcing’
That idea would not sit well with the union representing Ottawa police officers, which is generally supportive of moves to streamline police work.
"One of the biggest issues I have is looking at a profit-driven organization guarding a crime scene. I have a huge issue with that," said Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association.
"Our members are accountable. We stand up to that scrutiny. We are held to a high level because of the Police Services Act."
Skof said he expects police to experiment in the coming years.
He says a lot of changes needed, such as streamlining of judicial paperwork, are in the control of upper levels of government and he’s not convinced they will want to take back the responsibilities or costs.
Provincial committee studying change
A group called the Future of Policing Advisory Commitee has begun meeting at the Ontario level to look at some of the more systemic issues driving police costs and whether legislation or policies need to change.
Already, it has led to some data entry roles at the OPP being transferred to civilian staff said Madeleine Meilleur, the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services.
"When municipalities come to me and ask me about the costs of police and what I can do, they want to continue to have the same service. They love their officers," said Meilleur, who will eventually receive recommendations from the committee.
"I don’t know what will be the result but I’m glad to see that we are trying to work together to curtail the costs of policing in Ontario while keeping good police services."