Ottawa police to shift specialized officers, focus on 'core service'

CBC News has learned Ottawa police plan to move as many as 117 officers out of specialized neighbourhood policing roles in what police brass are characterizing as a return to "core service."

More than 100 neighbourhood, traffic, demo officers moving to patrol in major reshuffling

Ottawa police officers with district traffic units will be among those shifted to patrol duty in a major restructuring set for 2017. (CBC)

Ottawa police are set to implement a new model for protecting the public and investigating crime in 2017, and CBC News has learned it will involve shifting more than 100 officers from specialized units to front-line patrol duty.

Police brass say the restructuring will allow the force to focus on its core responsibilities, such as responding to emergencies, but critics charge it will result in officers losing touch with the communities with which they've spent years carefully building relationships.
Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof says the association will fight the planned restructuring. (CBC)

The Ottawa Police Association says it has a list of 117 officers who have been told they're about to be moved back to patrol duty. The bulk of the list consists of officers assigned to specific neighbourhoods across the city. These are the officers who respond to low-level drug trafficking in the Byward Market, break-and-enters in Barrhaven and prostitution stings in Vanier.

District traffic officers who nab speeders near school zones will also be rolled into the patrol unit. Community liaison officers who sit on boards and work with local groups will be affected, and so will officers with the "demo teams" that handle crowd control during protests.

'You will lose the intelligence'

OPA president Matt Skof says the specialized officers have received dozens of hours of extra training, so disbanding their units will waste their skills and lead to less effective response to crime.

"Imagine trying to do a sting and being constantly interrupted to take a patrol call, depending on the location you're at," Skof said.

He said the biggest impact will be on the relationships specialized officers have built with people in the community. 

"You will lose the intelligence that a neighbourhood officer was able to gather. A patrol officer can respond to the call, but it's random."

This is about getting back to our core service of emergency response ... We have become siloed.- Acting Supt. Mark Ford

Acting Supt. Mark Ford would not provide specific numbers but confirmed dozens of Ottawa police officers in neighbourhood, community, traffic and demo units have been told they'll be re-assigned to front-line patrol duties.

"This is about getting back to our core service of emergency response," Ford said. "This is not a slight against the history that we've built, but we have become siloed."

Ford called the new approach "generalist." He said by putting more officers into patrol it will allow the force to draw from a greater pool to respond to emergency calls.

The Ottawa Police Association has claimed that in recent years, staffing shortages in the patrol unit have resulted in days when police couldn't even provide minimum emergency coverage across the city.

The restructuring is the result of a four-year "service initiative review" that looked at every aspect of the force to find cost savings and "efficiencies." According to Ford, more than 100 officers were asked for their input.

Opposition growing

But opposition is building among some communities over the lack of public consultation involved in the decisions. 

Ketcia Peters sits on the police advisory committee on visible minorities and represents the city's Haitian community. She wasn't aware of the changes and is concerned about the pending loss of community liaison officers.

It makes a huge difference in trust when you see the person behind the badge or the uniform.- Ketcia Peters

"You feel more comfortable to report anything you see in the community if you know the officer," Peters said. "It does make a huge difference in terms of trust when you know the person behind the badge and the uniform."

With neighbourhood officers being shuffled out of community policing centres, it's feared that some or all of the 15 centres across the city could close.

Officers feeling 'like mall security'

The chair of the Ottawa police services board said he was aware changes were coming but did not know the specifics.

Eli El-Chantiry said the changes are operational, and it's the chief's prerogative to restructure as he sees fit.

"Some police officers feel like mall security, they want to do real police work. Well we're trying to make sure police do police jobs," El-Chantiry said.

El-Chantiry also opened the door to the idea of farming out some of the duties specialized officers have been performing. "If a job can be done by third party like a security company we should do that as well," he said

But University of Ottawa criminology professor Michael Kempa said too often police forces label such moves "operational" to justify them and avoid scrutiny. 

"Whenever police don't want to do what their civilian overseers want them to do they say it's operational," Kempa said.

Kempa, who has studied policing across Canada, said the courts have narrowly defined "operations" to ensure elected officials can't tell police who to arrest or investigate. He argues such wholesale restructuring is actually a policy issue on which both politicians and citizens should have a say. 

Contact Judy Trinh via Twitter @judytrinhcbc