Document argues mental health professionals should replace officers

Ryan Patrick Jones · CBC News · Posted: Jun 15, 2021

Protestors at a rally in downtown Ottawa on Oct. 20, 2020, express their displeasure following the not-guilty decision in the manslaughter trial of Ottawa police Const. Daniel Montsion. He had been charged with killing Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year-old Black man who suffered from mental health issues, in 2016. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

A group that advocates for Ottawa’s Black community is proposing an alternative way to respond to mental health-related calls in the city that would replace police officers as first responders.

The proposal is contained in a strategy document prepared by consulting company Vivic Research and developed with community organizations. The work was funded by $25,000 raised by 613-819 Black Hub.

The Alternatives for a Safer Ottawa strategy calls for the creation of a “community-run mental health crisis response program” made up of non-police first responders, including mental health professionals, who would respond with the goals of de-escalation, treatment and avoiding criminalization.

It recommends people experiencing mental health crises be able to call, text, or send a Facebook message to request help. It also recommends access be possible through the 911 emergency dispatch system, but only if it is operated independently from the police.

“When someone is having a mental health crisis, they need compassionate, competent care,” said Robin Browne, co-lead of 613-819 Black Hub, in a news release. “This plan will help Ottawa take a big step towards achieving both goals and creating a healthier, happier community.”

The proposed strategy comes amid an ongoing debate about the role of police in responding to people experiencing mental health issues, and loud calls for the defunding of police forces.

It was developed after a review of alternative crisis response programs in other cities, including the CAHOOTS community-based public safety program in Eugene, Oregon, the 24/7 Diversion team in Edmonton, and the Bear Clan Patrol in Winnipeg.  

Police as primary responders

Currently, Ottawa Police Service (OPS) members are the primary responders for mental health crises, tasked with conducting wellness checks, responding to person-in-crisis calls and apprehensions under the Mental Health Act.

But the strategy argues police officers are often ill-equipped to safely treat those experiencing mental health crises — and the results can be deadly, particularly for Black, Indigenous and people of colour.

The report specifically cites the cases of Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali-Canadian man, and Greg Ritchie, an Indigenous man, both of whom experienced mental health issues before their fatal encounters with Ottawa police officers in separate incidents.

Robin Browne, co-lead of 613-819 Black Hub, says he plans to share the strategy with Ottawa’s police board and city council. (Jean-Francois Poudrier/CBC)

Over the past year, people from Ottawa’s racialized communities along with progressive activists have regularly appeared at the Ottawa Police Services Board — the governing body for the police service — to call for funding to be redirected to social services that are better equipped to address the root causes of crime, such as poverty, unstable housing, mental health and addictions.

Council rejected those calls in December 2020 and approved a $376 million police budget for 2021, an increase of $13.2 million from the previous year.

Debating defunding

OPS is currently developing a mental health strategy that Chief Peter Sloly has said will involve a new approach for dealing with mental health calls. It’s expected to be implement within the next three years. 

But Browne said the alternative strategy could be a reality within a year, and proposes reallocating money from the OPS budget to cover the cost — estimated at $11.4 million over six years.

“Our system suggests taking the police out of mental health,” said Browne. “That’s a big chunk of money the police won’t need, so that’s a part of the justification for freezing the budget.”

Ottawa Police Services Board chair Diane Deans said in a statement she welcomes “all constructive ideas” for improving Ottawa’s mental health response system.

Deans cited a recent motion passed by council calling for the development of a city-wide mental health strategy in consultation with police and other agencies.

Toronto city council approved a pilot project earlier this year that’s similar to that being proposed by 613-819 Black Hub. It will employ crisis workers with expertise in mental health and de-escalation as first responders for certain non-emergency 911 calls starting in 2022. 

Source: CBC News


Ottawa Police Service asks for help from public in forging mental health strategy

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

Nicole Williams · CBC News · Posted: Jan 24, 2021

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is abdirahman-abdi.jpg
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.

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.

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.

Source: CBC News