Police force turns to public for help forging mental health strategy

Ottawa's police force has outlined how it will approach consulting with the public and professionals on its mental health strategy.

Changes will be developed alongside community members and experts, says OPS

The Ottawa Police Service has outlined its plan to consult with community members and experts on how officers can better respond to calls related to people dealing with addictions and suffering from mental distress. (CBC)

Ottawa's police force has outlined how it will approach consultations with professionals and the public on its new mental health strategy.

The details are found in a report, submitted by Ottawa Police Service (OPS) Chief Peter Sloly, that's slated to be presented to the city's police board Monday.

It "recognizes that the OPS must improve the way its members respond to calls for service where mental health and addictions are an issue," according to a press release.

"The community-led strategy will be co-developed with mental health care and addictions professionals, community-based organizations, academics and those with lived experience," the release said.

No one from the force was available to speak to CBC ahead of publication, but the strategy follows public criticism over the death of Abdirahman Abdi, a Black man who'd struggled with mental health and died after a violent arrest by two OPS officers in 2016.

The Justice for Abdirahman Coalition has since called for greater transparency and accountability from law enforcement agencies and for better police handling of mental health-related calls.

Partnering with community groups and experts

The report suggests getting community feedback through an online questionnaire on people's experiences with police, with data being shared on the OPS website and through social media.

The plan also involves interviewing "community members, academics, subject matter experts, mental health professionals, addiction specialists, and other groups."

Interviews have already begun, the report said.

While the force usually relies on ride-alongs to connect with and educate the public, the COVID-19 pandemic has OPS looking for alternatives, the report said.

It said OPS should be in regular contact with community partners and will  use paid advertisements, social media and posters to showcase the work it's doing.

OPS said it plans to begin public consultations this spring, while spending the year training members so that there are "an increasing number of officers with specialized mental health training embedded in every front-facing unit."

Gaps in data

The report also shows the number of mental health-related calls went up in 2020.

Last year, police responded to 2,354 calls where mental health was a concern. That's compared to 2,181 calls in 2019, with similar totals for the two previous years.

OPS said these numbers represent just a "fraction" of calls, however, where mental health could be a contributing factor.

Abdirahman Abdi, 37, died after a violent altercation with police outside his apartment building in Ottawa's Hintonburg neighbourhood in 2016. Since his death, advocates have been calling Ottawa police to reform how they handle calls where mental health is a component. (Supplied)

Part of the challenge, the force said, is that there are gaps in the data around mental health and addictions.

There is no national standard governing the collection and reporting of calls through the dispatch system, which means each police force individually defines the type of call it receives, its priority level and how to respond.

Right now, 911 calls are directed to police, paramedics or fire services. OPS said it wants 911 dispatchers to have the option of redirecting mental health-related calls about people who are not in immediate danger to a specialized community mental health team.

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