Windsor police launch new program to help connect drug users with support

Windsor police are launching a new strategy aimed at helping those who use drugs and promoting neighbourhood safety.

One community advocate says a heavy police presence could urge people to go elsewhere

Windsor police Const. Surjeet Gill is leading the Substance Supports in Neighbourhoods Accessed through Police Partnerships team. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

Windsor police are launching a new initiative the service says is aimed at helping those who use drugs and promoting neighbourhood safety.

The new program, called Substance Supports in Neighbourhoods Accessed through Police Partnerships, was announced Wednesday. It's expected to launch in the fall in Windsor and Amherstburg.

Police say the initiative involves officers being "visible and accessible" in high-priority areas, internal training for officers and educating the public on the resources available for those affected by overdoses and drug use.

The three-year program is possible through a $1.5-million grant from the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General.

It's being led by Windsor police, in partnership with the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) and the city of Windsor.

Jason Bellaire is the acting police chief in Windsor. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

Acting police chief Jason Bellaire said at a press conference that the partnership "provides an opportunity for the community to further to understand the role of police services in response to a public health concern, while delivering a response to our community that is appropriate, comprehensive and humane."

Bellaire said police are "not the answer" to social crises like substance use, but they want to be "good partners" and they're often the first point of contact when it comes to responding to situations.

"Not just [for] the people that are struggling with the issues themselves personally, but the communities that are struggling with the corresponding impacts ... perhaps social disorder, crime, a sense of being unsafe in their community," he said.

Windsor police Const. Surjeet Gill is the officer leading the new policing program, and there will be four or six other officers dedicated to the initiative.

 He said it builds on the outreach the police service is already doing, and will allow officers to support people by providing them with information about services.

"We're the first responders, we're the first ones on the scene, right?," he said. "I think the bigger challenge we are facing is, how are these people connected after — that's going to be the key, right?"

66 people lost to opioids last year

The program comes as the public health unit continues work to establish an opioid consumption and treatment site in the downtown as a way to help prevent opioid overdose-related deaths.

In 2021, 66 people in Windsor-Essex lost their lives to opioid overdoses, according to statistics from the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario.

Eric Nadalin, the director of public health programs for WECHU, said that there were five overdose deaths in the community during the first full week of the month.

"There is no stone that should be left unturned in our effort to combat this crisis," he said.

Advocate Lisa Valente is shown in a 2021 file photo. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Community advocate Lisa Valente says that any announcement in recognition of the current "state of emergency" is a good thing.

She said, however, that those in an overdose situation will be wary of uniformed officers, and a heavy police presence will just encourage people to go elsewhere.

In order to make inroads with the community, she said police should to co-ordinate with peer support workers on the ground.

"There's people out there every single day that are feeding our friends experiencing homelessness, who are helping our friends that are using substances," she said. 

"If they were to put themselves in those situations, when you're breaking bread with these people, you're going to get to know them and there a stigma that's based around drug use, right? So if you want to start breaking the stigma, you have to walk with them, you have to get to know them."

Leonardo Gil, who is managing the project, said at the press conference that there will be engagement with the community and those with lived experience with substance use in order to determine how best to move forward.

"A big portion of this will be consultation, will be engagement, and also having direct and targeted actions based off of that engagement and that consultation," he said.

With files from Katerina Georgieva and Kerri Breen