Ottawa

Ottawa police to restructure, focus on community policing and social services

Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly says the service will improve its ties with social service organizations and make its mental health crisis teams available 24/7.

Chief Peter Sloly unveils plan amid loud calls to defund the police

Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly takes part in a panel in November 2019. Sloly has followed an appearance before a federal committee last week where he told MPs that police should be better integrated with social services by announcing a plan to focus his service more on that goal. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Chief Peter Sloly is restructuring the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) to focus on collaboration between police and social service organizations and expanding community policing and mental health response teams.

The reforms will help OPS meet its goals of rooting out systemic racism, increasing diversity in its workforce and improving the relationship between officers and the communities they serve, Sloly said.

He detailed the reorganization Monday at a meeting of the Ottawa Police Services Board, the civilian panel that oversees the police service, amid growing criticism from activists and members of the public.

"We are listening. We are learning. We are responding and we are changing," Sloly told the board.

"Changing police culture is not something that can happen overnight."

Defund vs. reform within budget

A total of 11 people spoke to the police board and two others wrote in to share their ideas for changing the police service. 

Many argued passionately for defunding the police service, which means taking money from its budget and redirecting it toward community services.

"Putting money into policing doesn't reduce crime," Khadija El Hilali, a 22-year-old Carleton University student, told the board.

"Crime prevention starts with funding social programs and creating opportunities."

El Hilali, who is also president of an anti-racism group on campus, pointed out that Ottawa's crime rate increased in 2019 even though OPS received a budget increase of several million dollars.

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César Ndéma-Moussa, a consultant on diversity and equity issues for the Community Equity Council of the Ottawa Police Service, says increasing police budgets won’t reduce crime if social services remain underfunded. 1:15

Sloly argued against defunding police, instead calling for shifting the service's approach to policing away from one that focuses exclusively on crime prevention and reduction.

Instead, he argued the police service should work more closely with city services, including mental health services, and expand the kinds of organizations that police collaborate with to tackle societal problems.

From an organizational standpoint, Sloly's changes will see OPS divided into three sections — the Investigations, Information, and Intelligence Command, the Community Policing Command, and the Corporate Services Command.

(Ottawa Police Services Board/YouTube)

The community policing section will expand the use of neighbourhood resource teams, dedicated groups of police officers assigned to specific neighbourhoods who work with local residents, non-profits, business associations and city staff on community issues.

Currently, there are neighbourhood policing teams in Vanier, Heron Gate, Carlington and the ByWard Market and Lowertown areas. Two more are expected in Centretown and Bayshore this fall.

Sloly said he also plans to expand mental health crisis response units, where licensed mental health workers are embedded with police officers and able to respond to mental health calls. 

That service is currently available eight hours per day during the week and 12 hours a day on weekends. Sloly wants it to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

No additional funding needed

It's not clear whether the changes will satisfy critics, some who argue community policing stigmatizes parts of the city and brings more officers into contact with people they're biased against.

"Changing our organizational chart will not address all of the core issues that were raised … by community members over the course of the last several weeks and in fact several years," said Sloly. 

"It will however be another major contributing factor to our ongoing intensive efforts to rebuild public trust, rebuild member morale and reform the Ottawa Police Services culture."

Sloly said OPS won't seek any additional funding to implement the organizational changes, but will make use of the funding already approved by the police board for 2019-2020.

The police service has taken a $13.7 million hit because of a combination of revenue shortfalls and increased expenditures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a financial report presented to the board. 

Despite the blow to its budget, OPS was able to find the money for the changes within a balanced budget through strategies including a spending freeze and a no-travel rule.

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