St. Thomas police brace for record addiction, mental health, petty crime calls

The St. Thomas police chief says his front-line officers are bracing for another busy year after responding to a record-breaking number of calls in 2018, many of them driven by poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental health issues.

In 2018, property crimes were up by almost 90 per cent over the previous year

The St. Thomas police chief says his front-line officers are bracing for another busy year after responding to a record-breaking number of calls in 2018. (Luke Macgregor/Reuters)

The St. Thomas police chief says his front-line officers are bracing for another busy year after responding to a record-breaking number of calls in 2018, many of them driven by poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental health issues. 

In 2018, officers dealt with 18,875 calls for service, a record-breaking year for most types of police calls, said Chief Chris Herridge. 

Among the startling 2018 numbers from St. Thomas police: 

  • Bail violation charges doubled
  • Criminal charges were up by 72 per cent
  • Property crimes spiked by 89 per cent
  • Motor vehicle crashes increased by 83 per cent
  • Domestic violence calls were up by 67 per cent 

The underlying issues of addiction, poverty and mental illness — at a time when social agencies are also stretched to their limits — lead to more calls to police, said Herridge. 

"The social disorder calls are placing a heavy demand on our resources. We're not seeing violent crime on the rise. We're seeing property crime go up, and the thefts that are occurring, the break and enters, some of these people are repeat offenders, they're connected to the drug trade," said Herridge. 

"It's more lower-level thefts, it's to feed a drug habit. Our community partners are underfunded and under-resourced as well, and we're the shop that's open 365 days a year, 24-7. People are going to call us and we're going to try to respond in the best way that we can." 

Many of the calls were driven by poverty, homelessness, addiction and mental health issues. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

'Vulnerable people need experts'

St. Thomas police have asked for a 5.42 per cent budget increase from the City of St. Thomas, which would allow for the hiring of three additional officers, bringing the service's complement of officers to 73. 

That would allow officers a small amount of breathing room and to deal with other offences more quickly, Herridge said. 

But the underlying problem isn't about police resources, he said. It's about people who need help that officers can't give them. 

"When it comes to mental health, our officers have gotten training, but we're not the experts. The vulnerable people need experts," he said. 

"A police officer comes and takes them to the hospital or to jail. They need someone who can provide them with referrals, with the proper follow-up care. We need to get to the bottom of the root causes of what's going on. Right now, we're just throwing money at the problem and reacting." 

Officers are frustrated at the "revolving door" of criminals they see, and the service has started naming chronic repeat offenders in media releases, to increase accountability and let others know about what's going on, Herridge said. 

A lot of drugs from London are making their way to St. Thomas, which has seen similar problems with crystal meth and fentanyl. 

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