Remove police from mental health crisis response, advocates propose

A group that advocates for the Black community is proposing an alternative way to respond to mental health calls in the city: removing the central role of Ottawa police as first responders.

Document argues mental health professionals should replace officers

Protestors at a rally in downtown Ottawa on Oct. 20, 2020, express their displeasure following the not-guilty decision in the manslaughter trial of Ottawa police Const. Daniel Montsion. He had been charged with killing Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year-old Black man who suffered from mental health issues, in 2016. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

A group that advocates for Ottawa's Black community is proposing an alternative way to respond to mental health-related calls in the city that would replace police officers as first responders.

The proposal is contained in a strategy document prepared by consulting company Vivic Research and developed with community organizations. The work was funded by $25,000 raised by 613-819 Black Hub.

The Alternatives for a Safer Ottawa strategy calls for the creation of a "community-run mental health crisis response program" made up of non-police first responders, including mental health professionals, who would respond with the goals of de-escalation, treatment and avoiding criminalization.

It recommends people experiencing mental health crises be able to call, text, or send a Facebook message to request help. It also recommends access be possible through the 911 emergency dispatch system, but only if it is operated independently from the police.

"When someone is having a mental health crisis, they need compassionate, competent care," said Robin Browne, co-lead of 613-819 Black Hub, in a news release. "This plan will help Ottawa take a big step towards achieving both goals and creating a healthier, happier community."

The proposed strategy comes amid an ongoing debate about the role of police in responding to people experiencing mental health issues, and loud calls for the defunding of police forces.

It was developed after a review of alternative crisis response programs in other cities, including the CAHOOTS community-based public safety program in Eugene, Oregon, the 24/7 Diversion team in Edmonton, and the Bear Clan Patrol in Winnipeg.  

Police as primary responders

Currently, Ottawa Police Service (OPS) members are the primary responders for mental health crises, tasked with conducting wellness checks, responding to person-in-crisis calls and apprehensions under the Mental Health Act.

But the strategy argues police officers are often ill-equipped to safely treat those experiencing mental health crises — and the results can be deadly, particularly for Black, Indigenous and people of colour.

The report specifically cites the cases of Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali-Canadian man, and Greg Ritchie, an Indigenous man, both of whom experienced mental health issues before their fatal encounters with Ottawa police officers in separate incidents.

Robin Browne, co-lead of 613-819 Black Hub, says he plans to share the strategy with Ottawa's police board and city council. (Jean-Francois Poudrier/CBC)

Over the past year, people from Ottawa's racialized communities along with progressive activists have regularly appeared at the Ottawa Police Services Board — the governing body for the police service — to call for funding to be redirected to social services that are better equipped to address the root causes of crime, such as poverty, unstable housing, mental health and addictions.

Council rejected those calls in December 2020 and approved a $376 million police budget for 2021, an increase of $13.2 million from the previous year.

Debating defunding

OPS is currently developing a mental health strategy that Chief Peter Sloly has said will involve a new approach for dealing with mental health calls. It's expected to be implement within the next three years. 

But Browne said the alternative strategy could be a reality within a year, and proposes reallocating money from the OPS budget to cover the cost — estimated at $11.4 million over six years.

"Our system suggests taking the police out of mental health," said Browne. "That's a big chunk of money the police won't need, so that's a part of the justification for freezing the budget."

Ottawa Police Services Board chair Diane Deans said in a statement she welcomes "all constructive ideas" for improving Ottawa's mental health response system.

Deans cited a recent motion passed by council calling for the development of a city-wide mental health strategy in consultation with police and other agencies.

Toronto city council approved a pilot project earlier this year that's similar to that being proposed by 613-819 Black Hub. It will employ crisis workers with expertise in mental health and de-escalation as first responders for certain non-emergency 911 calls starting in 2022. 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.



  • A previous version of this story said Abdirahman Abdi was shot and killed by Ottawa police. Abdi died following a violent confrontation with police.
    Jun 15, 2021 7:36 AM ET

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