Owen Sound Police Service SUV4 600x400

- by John A. Tamming

Owen Sound is a stunning and compelling place to live. But it consists of a relatively tiny 8 square miles and 21,000 residents, more or less. The population pops up during the day, but no one really knows how many commute in and out of the city. So let’s just stipulate that the daytime population moves up to 26,000.

To police this modest town, we have a whopping 40 full-time police officers, 22 full-time civilian employees, a score more of part-time civilians and around 14 special constables. (Many of those civilians work at a dispatch “profit centre”, but I assure you that, after poking around the issue for over a year, no one really knows what the net profit is. One person in the know described it as a budgetary black box. Besides, I am not convinced it is even legal for a police department to run a business).

To police this modest town, we have a budget approaching $11 million, which has increased at double the rate of inflation for the last decade and now consumes almost 30% of our operating budget.

In tandem with national trends, serious local crime has declined markedly over the last decade. Further, the police themselves will tell you (and any visit to our criminal court will confirm) that a massive amount of policing involves those with addiction and mental health challenges.

Which brings us to my pending motion before city council to partially defund the force. I propose a haircut of 30%. Some might say this is an arbitrary number. It certainly is that – but no more arbitrary than saying that only $11 million and 40 officers can guarantee our safety and that we are at peril with $7.5 million and 30 uniforms.

Across North America, citizens of all political stripes are re-evaluating why we police all the various kinds of human behavior which we in fact choose to police.

There is a better way. It takes some imagination but not that much. It takes some political courage but, again, not that much.

A distraught mother calls about her suicidal teen, who faces gender identity issues and cannot cope. A community (not police) dispatcher sends out a retired high school guidance counselor who has received enhanced training and has agreed to work on a per diem basis for crises just like this. She forms a relationship of trust and uses that to leverage the adolescent to a sunnier day.

A storeowner calls in about someone loitering and making a scene by her shop. A community dispatcher sends out a social worker in tee shirt and windbreaker to engage the man in conversation. He spends an hour with him, finds out that the man is homeless and engages and housing is arranged.

I am not naïve. Not all these interactions will lead to success, but I bet a two hour coffee with a social worker will pay better dividends than a police intervention.

Defund a good chunk of policing, take the savings and hire on call or full time mental health and social workers through the city’s department of community services. While the city is at it, take another slice of the savings and help fund a specially designed housing project which offers bachelor apartments and provides light supervision for those with special mental health challenges (I am describing the incredibly successful Indwell program – please google it).

Do we really need 35 to 40 uniformed officers, each costing $100,000 or more (with benefits in), driving around in ominous $100,000 cruisers and SUVs, to intervene in any of those calls I just described? If the situation escalates, add in the police by all means (the police calibrate their responses and increase their muscle all the time as the interaction warrants). But why not calibrate the “community response” (not police response) to the situation at hand and avoid the police altogether for a host of calls?

The police will quite correctly respond that they are working with community mental wellness and addiction treatment partners, that they are not exactly blind to these issues. True, but they will never voluntarily give up part of their budget back to the city to free us up to address the precarious shelter and mental health issues which ground so much of their work. That is just not in the cards. This is why we need not police reform, but actual defunding.

Thus the motion, scheduled for June 29, 2020 at City Hall. They would have every right to appeal such a decision to a police oversight tribunal. But the winds of change are in the air and citizens are demanding an overhaul of community self-policing. With the proper ground work, our odds of success may be better than you think.

Imagine if this little burg caught the vision and showcased for the rest of the province what dramatic and impactful policing change looks like.





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