Sudbury

Auditor general says Ontario Provincial Police short 1,000 front-line officers

A new report from Ontario's auditor general suggests a shortage of provincial police officers is making northern communities less safe. But the OPP says the small towns where it is the local police force have nothing to worry about. 

1 small town in northeast says OPP service is excellent, but the cost is too high

Ontario's auditor general says the Ontario Provincial Police is short 1,000 front-line officers, but the police force says only about 38 of those are in the northeast.

When you call the Ontario Provincial Police Association, one of the first options on the automated message is to report a staffing shortage.

The union for 10,000 officers and civilian employees, including some 1,500 in the north, has been collecting data on staffing shortages for years and wasn't surprised when the auditor general found the police force is short 1,000 front-line officers.

"That's one of the issues we've had with the employer: 'You can't staff for the what ifs,'" said Rob Stinson, president of the police association. 

"Well you have to staff for the what ifs. I see the firehall doesn't say, 'We haven't a fire on a Tuesday in a while, so we don't need firefighters on a Tuesday.'"

Ontario's auditor general also found OPP spending has risen 26 per cent since 2012, but its contingent of officers has dropped by nine per cent and the hours police spend on patrol are down 48 per cent. 

"No matter what happens, no matter what goes on," said Bill Dickson, the acting manager of media relations for the OPP, "if you call 911 and you need a police officer right now, we will have officers responding to that call."

Dickson said the police force doesn't reveal figures by detachment because "we don't want bad guys to know where we are or where we are not short," but in general, the 13 OPP detachments of the northeast are in good shape compared to other parts of the province. 

The Ontario Provincial Police Association would like to see the force look for new recruits in northern communities that need officers.

"We're short by about 30 constables right now, six sergeants, a staff sergeant and one inspector," he said. 

"That's where we are short in all of northeast region. So spread that out among all the detachments and it really isn't that bad a picture."

Dickson said the OPP is trying to improve response times, using new technology to have officers from neighbouring towns respond to high-priority calls, and is searching for new ways to recruit new officers. 

"It's a challenge no matter where you are," he said.

"Policing may not be as attractive a career as it used to be."

Stinson said the association would like to see the OPP take a similar approach to the Northern Ontario School of Medicine and look for new recruits in the north. 

"The old theory was a member would get hired from Toronto, go up north, stay there for a year and a half, two years, and as soon as they had an opportunity, vacate the north." 

The auditor general found while OPP spending has risen 26 per cent since 2012, the hours officers spend on patrol has dropped 48 per cent. (OPP West Region)

The auditor also found a third of all front-line vacancies are officers off on long-term medical leave, which Stinson says worsened because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"A normal stressful work environment has added that much more stress and that's why some of our members are finally at the point where they're getting burnt out," he said. 

"They won't let their partner run short or the other shift run short, so they feel compelled they have to come in and work overtime and now they're exhausted and at a breaking point."

Cochrane Mayor Denis Clement said he hasn't heard of office shortages causing problems with his town's OPP detachment.

But he isn't happy the municipal policing bill for the town of 5,300 is $1.4 milllion for the coming year. 

"Yes the bill is expensive, but the service is also excellent," Clement said. 

"Our feeling is the province should probably pay 100 per cent of the costs, but that's the model and we deal with it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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