Police chiefs urge province to tackle mental health

TheStar.com – news
Published On Sun Jun 26 2011.   Sandro Contenta, Staff Reporter

The provincial government should boost mental health services because a growing number of people with those problems are getting into trouble with the law, Ontario’s police chiefs say.

“There’s simply not enough support for people with mental health problems,” said Joe Couto, director of government relations with the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police.

The result is that people who need the help of health care workers are instead “coming into contact more and more with the justice system,” Couto added in a phone interview Sunday.

“We are spending a lot of time and resources dealing with mental health issues,” he said, referring to police officers across the province. “This goes way back to the Mike Harris (Conservative) government, which started making cuts in social support. And guess who got to take a lot of those responsibilities?”

The association’s board of directors, which includes Couto, approved a resolution Sunday calling on the provincial government to implement a policy that makes social services — rather than police — the cornerstone of helping mental health sufferers. The resolution will be voted on by about 150 police chiefs and inspectors Wednesday, the final day of the association’s annual conference in Huntsville.

“It’s more a crime prevention strategy than a law enforcement strategy,” Couto said. “We don’t believe that dealing with mental health should be about law enforcement. It should be about addressing people’s needs at the front end so they don’t get into the justice system.”

Twelve per cent of men and 26 per cent of women in federal prisons suffer from mental health problems, according to a federally-commissioned report. And four out of every five offenders enter penitentiaries with serious drug or alcohol abuse problems.

Couto said Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government has acknowledged that more mental health support is needed, and has talked about plans for a comprehensive policy. With a provincial election in October, and McGuinty’s Liberals trailing in the polls, the police chiefs want the premier to move faster. But they won’t get a chance to make their case face-to-face. McGuinty has declined the association’s invitation to address its annual meeting.

“He won’t be here, which I think has raised a few eyebrows,” Couto said. “We don’t know why he’s not here. We assume he has other commitments.”

Couto said McGuinty attended the annual meeting during the two previous election years. In his place will be community safety minister, Jim Bradley. Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak will address the chiefs Tuesday, and New Democrat Leader Andrea Horwath will do so Wednesday.

The association’s board of directors also approved a resolution calling on the federal government to continue funding a program that saw 2,500 police officers hired across the country during the past five years — 325 of them in Ontario. The federal government has yet to say if it will.

But the board rejected a resolution calling on the Ontario government to make it mandatory for gas stations to have pay-first gas pumps. Police chiefs believe it’s more appropriate for the industry to make that appeal to the government, if that’s what it chooses to do, Couto said. The board’s rejection means the resolution won’t be debated at the conference’s full session Wednesday, unless there’s a motion for that to happen.

The resolution was proposed by the Hamilton police service after a Mississauga gas station attendant was killed last May trying to stop someone who filled his gas tank and drove off.

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