Redirect Ottawa police budget boost to community, board told

Several delegations urged the Ottawa Police Services Board to reject the force's request for millions of dollars in new funding for 2022, demanding it be invested instead in mental health programs, affordable housing and other community initiatives.

Police force is seeking an additional $14M for 2022

Ottawa Police Service headquarters on Elgin Street.
Ottawa police are asking for an additional $14 million in their coffers for 2022, but many people who spoke at a police board meeting Tuesday say that money could be better put toward community initiatives. (Radio-Canada)

Several delegations urged Ottawa's police board to reject the force's request for millions of dollars in new funding for 2022, demanding it be invested instead in mental health programs, affordable housing and other community initiatives.

More than a dozen people shared their thoughts Tuesday with the Ottawa Police Services Board's finance and audit committee on the draft budget tabled earlier this month by the Ottawa Police Service (OPS).

The OPS budget has called for an infusion of $14 million, which would bring their total operating budget for 2022 to $346.5 million, plus an additional $23 million for capital costs.

That request would necessitate a tax increase of 2.86 per cent.

At the time, police Chief Peter Sloly acknowledged the community wants changes in policing — and while he supported making changes, he said freezing the budget wouldn't allow the force to carry them out.

Nor would a budget freeze permit Ottawa police to meet their obligations under the Police Services Act, he added. 

Nevertheless, many people who spoke Tuesday urged for a freeze to be implemented, something board chair Coun. Diane Deans had vowed to work toward for 2022, but later acknowledged it might take longer to accomplish.

"OPS gets new equipment, new patrol cars, new firearms. And what [do they do] with that equipment? They go back in our communities and they start causing problems," said speaker Mohamed Miguil.

"Any money you can give back to the community will help so many people. It seems counterintuitive [but] don't give up, don't get scared," added Bailey Gauthier, another delegate. "And you'll save lives."

A protester holds a sign at a rally in Ottawa in October 2020, calling for police to be defunded. ( Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Rethink mental health calls

Several speakers felt there was a disconnect between the size of the police force's request and other investments set out in the overall draft city budget, including $15 million for affordable housing and $1.3 million for new ambulances and paramedics.

Sam Hersh of Horizon Ottawa, a municipal advocacy group, said the force's proposed nine-digit budget stood in stark contrast to the fact 95 social service agencies are slated to split a fraction of that in 2022.

"In what reasonable society would many of these organizations [be] scraping over a meagre, paltry $27 million while the Ottawa police — one organization, mind you — gets close to $400 million?" Hersh asked.

The myriad of concerns expressed Tuesday — which also touched on traffic enforcement, conducted energy weapon purchases and whether OPS officers should have any involvement in mental health calls — suggested there was a "crescendo in the conversations happening in our city," said Coun. Shawn Menard.

Menard argued for freezing the budget while also looking at something like an $11-million policing alternative project in Toronto, one that involves community-based nurses, harm-reduction workers and others trained in de-escalation assisting with mental health crisis calls.

"We know that mental health response teams actually save resources and can improve outcomes. Cities across Canada are moving in this direction," he said.

Coun. Diane Deans, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, and city police Chief Peter Sloly sit together at city hall in 2019.

'We know we need to change'

On multiple occasions throughout Tuesday's nearly six-hour meeting, Sloly reiterated something he's said before: that OPS was prepared to divest themselves of some of their responsibilities around mental health calls.

The force has said a budget freeze could lead to nearly 140 layoffs, with Sloly telling the board's committee they're short officers in a number of units like guns and gangs, traffic and cybercrime.

"We've made a submission that allows us to maintain what we believe is the adequate and barely effective level of police service delivery in the city.- Chief Peter Sloly on the force's draft 2022 budget

"We've made a submission that allows us to maintain what we believe is the adequate and barely effective level of police service delivery in the city," Sloly said near the end of the meeting.

When asked what's kept him up at night during the budget process, Sloly cited both the stress on his officers and need to forge a "shared vision" with residents as to what a "different and better police service looks like."

"We know we need to be better. We know we need to change," he said. "But the strain is palpable. It's been that way from the first day that I took office. It's only gotten worse, and I need the board's help to turn that around."

After the budget was first presented, Deans said the 2.86 increase pitched by Ottawa police was their "starting number," while making it clear the board wouldn't simply hand over an additional $14 million without going through it line-by-line.

The entire police board will consider the budget on Nov. 22.