Opinion: City Police Officers – Thunder Bay’s Scapegoats

Thunder Bay Police Service Unit

By Jim Mauro

THUNDER BAY – OPINION – Once again, the Thunder Bay Police Service is facing accusations in large headlines. One of the great things about policing is that millions of people who have never done the job, are willing to tell officers how it should be done. I wonder if these people give their surgeon that same sort of advice.

A young woman is no longer with us. That is a tragedy for her family that will stay with them forever. But as so often happens, the police are the ones to be blamed. As to the circumstances of this call, here is what I and the media know with 100 percent certainty. Nothing.

People are screaming at the police and using another death to further an agenda. I am not here to defend the officer(s); these comments are merely to slow down the rush to the public condemnation that flows long before facts are presented.

We watched it with an officer and a young girl on a hospital stretcher when the media coverage was so far removed from reality that it was absurd. Before condemning an entire organization again, could we at least wait a day or two and get some facts. If there was fault, then I am sure the Chief of Police or an outside agency will deal with the officer or officers involved.

However, through this tragedy there is one aspect of the story that has not been mentioned. That is the point of this article. It is about 23 minutes.

Those 23 minutes from the time the first call was received, until the second call was received to cancel police. 23 minutes where no car was sent, no officer attended, and no action taken that may have prevented this tragedy.

Why were no police officers sent? Because there were no police officer available. And this is not a rare occurrence. It was not because the police do not care. It was not because of the race of the individual. It is because there are not enough police officers patrolling this city.

I spent six years as President of the Police Association. I will again remind readers, taxpayers, critics, and most importantly elected officials, that this topic was raised by me repeatedly, and was ignored by most. When I stated there were not enough officers on the street, it got reported for a day. No editorials, no demands for more officers. When I spoke about our serious crime problems, for the most part, crickets.

Keith Hobbs was elected Mayor in large part because of crime. Did the other twelve on City Council tackle this issue to deal with the increasing crime problems in our city? No, they did what they always do, say this was the responsibility of the Police Services Board, even though Council had 3 of the five positions on the Board and Council pays the bill.

Even with approximately 230 officers, people have little concept of what duties and responsibilities are faced by a police service. Court Security, a gang unit, a drug unit, a tactical unit, a domestic violence unit, a Scenes of Crime unit, an Intelligence Unit, a traffic unit, a criminal investigation unit, a computer crimes unit, a training branch, court supervisor, bail program, school resource, elder abuse officers, a break and enter unit, and community inclusion officers, a section that may be unique to this city but one that takes away staffing from front line duties. Of course, we cannot forget the complaints division so that anyone and everyone can file a complaint. All these sections need to be staffed and supervised. Nor does it account for the many officers off on WSIB or Long-Term Disability from the wear and tear, that comes with this job.

When I started in 1985, it was not unusual to have 16 officers on patrol and on weekends 18-20. Today, it is common to have 10-12 to respond to calls for service. Sometimes there are more, perhaps 13, but often there is not. There have been times when the number was 8. So, when 2, 3, 4 officers are at the hospital guarding prisoners, two officers tied up with an impaired driver, and other demands, it does not take long until no one is available to respond to your call for help. Just the mental health calls alone have a huge impact on the availability of police to respond to 911 calls.

We have reached the point where calls often go unanswered. We sometimes take reports of robberies over the phone. Businesses phone in thefts from their store. Is this how the people of this city want to be protected?

The Fire Service has a window (I believe I am correct) of wanting to respond to the call within 9 minutes. I do not believe this is required by legislation but is a conscious decision by the leaders of this city. So that leads to this question. If someone is breaking into your house, threatening you with a gun, or possibly attacking a family member, are you okay waiting nine minutes for a police officer or being told that there is no one to send? Nine minutes would be a major improvement over twenty-three, or hours.

One night recently there were several serious calls involving weapons, and a possible home invasion with no officers to send. This is a common occurrence. I recall working in our communication centre when a 911 call was received about a man with a knife. I had no one available to send. That was over twenty years ago, and things have only gotten worse.

Why are there no standards mandating a police response to serious crimes/calls for service? Why has this city simply accepted the inadequate number of officers on the road, yet whenever the chance presents itself, has no problem being critical of the officers. Is it any wonder the officers of this police service are burnt out, demoralized and many, even new officers, are looking to get out.

I have watched as people from outside the organization for their own political gain publicly attack the officers of this service. Reinvestigations of incidents that had already been reinvestigated with little to no change. Reports like the York Regional Police Service report that has never been made public because it likely states that the Thunder Bay Officers did their job well. That is contrary to the narrative that so many wish to keep repeating. Is anyone on City Council brave enough to ask for that report to be made public? Anyone?

A non-stop parade of attacks against these officers aand no one is worried that perhaps this will have a negative impact on the people who work there. And here is another question: has any of this never ending cycle of criticism, made anyone safer in this city?

Every member of this police service has or will be receiving four days of cultural training. Who is paying for this because that represents almost a full year of work for six members of the police service? And again, how has this increased public safety at 2am? Nothing I am writing here will change this narrative. In fact, it will likely lead to attacks against me, but at some point, we need to throw out the status quo and accept that we need to do better then simply blaming this police service for every human mistake, every government policy, and every bad thing that happens in this city.

Twenty-three minutes with no officers available, yet the police are at fault. Ten or if lucky twelve officers on the road for the entire city, but again the police are at fault. Dealing over and over with societal issues like mental health, addictions, poverty, that the police are not responsible for, but the police are at fault. Doctors investigate doctors, lawyers investigate lawyers, teachers investigate teachers, politicians accountable to no one. Yet the lawyers and politicians create layers of police oversite that take officers off the road, use limited resources, and does nothing to protect the public, but the police are at fault.

This tragedy may not have happened, had the appropriate level of resources been made available. Again, do not confuse any of this as an attempt at defending the officer(s) who was involved. As I said, I do not know if there was failure or not, but I am not surprised that something like this happened. My only surprise is that it has not happened more often. Will this tragedy change things before it happens again, or do we need to wait until another young person is gone, or an officer loses their life because their back-up was coming from the other side of the city?

I am not surprised that so many people want to get out of this profession. I predicted it would happen twenty years ago. Would it surprise you that some officers are going to hesitate in chasing a suspect out of fear they will be held criminally responsible for the actions of the person they were trying to apprehend. Would it surprise you that officers are hesitating and exposing themselves to increased risk because of the race of the individual involved, because that is happening. Most officers do not want to be the next headline for those trying to score political points.

When you make serious accusations of racism against an entire police service, are you going to get better policing, or will you get some officers who will look the other way rather than get involved? Ask yourself; what you would do?

Officers are human beings. They have families they want to support and protect, they have medical issues, and day to day concerns that may impact them at work. They will do what almost every single one of you would do, stay out of the fray, do their job with as little blow back as possible and go home to their family. I have seen far too many officers go from caring deeply about this community to just putting in their time and wanting to go home. They have been demoralized and burnt out by this job and the non-stop accusations and demands that few will ever experience.

Where do we go from here? What steps can be taken to ensure that the necessary resources are available so that something like this tragedy can possibly be avoided in the future?

I see three options. Council can garner the necessary political will and supply funds on condition that they are used directly for front line policing. You can explore having the OPP take over but that opens a host of other issues even if the OPP would even want to look at this. It would also do nothing to alleviate the core problem of how many officers are on the road at one time. Or three, you can keep the status quo. If you choose the latter, can people stop the on-going attacks against this police service that is not supported properly.

We are a small city, servicing a regional population that is not reflected in our official numbers, and we are covering most of the expense for regional issues that we did not create. So, this leads me to a fourth option, and the one that I hope the public will choose.

Demand the 13 people sitting around the council table infuse the police service with emergency funding to put officers on the road. Tell them to demand more provincial dollars from their government MPP and to not stop until this funding is provided. At the same time, do the same with your two Federal MP’s (one a cabinet minister) where their obligation to this city’s challenges is obvious but continually ignored. We are asked to provide policing, EMS, mental health/addiction treatment, hospital/other services for a regional population with a city tax base. It is a recipe for failure.

We have a small industrial/commercial tax base and a huge geographical footprint. Maybe just once some of those media folks who are so quick to criticize the police, could ask our government representatives a question about providing significant funding to this city, to deal with the problems that impact this police service and increase the risk to public safety.

Some will say this responsibility lies with the police services Board and to some degree, that is accurate. The Board can certainly tell the city more funds are required and demand them. If the city does not agree, there is a dispute process available to the Board that could possibly mandate it. Most of the Board is new, while many on Council have been there for a long time. Why have none of them been held accountable for the state of crime in this city?

But returning to the Board, we have had Toronto appointees running our police services board for about five years. Would you say that public safety has improved during this period? Do the police officers feel safer performing their job due to the policies these individuals have pushed through?

Preventing crime, preventing this type of tragedy is at the core of what these police officers signed up for. But their desire to save lives and make the city a better place to live, has sometimes been replaced by indifference or by the self preservation that every human being carries within them. Being constantly attacked as these officers have been has done nothing to improve the safety of this community and I would argue it has made it dramatically worse.

The police didn’t cause this twenty-three-minute delay. Had enough officers been on duty, that call would have been responded to when it was received no matter who was involved. It is easy to simply lay the blame at the one or several people involved, and perhaps they did fail in a significant way. If so, there should be appropriate accountability. But like most issues in this police service, the whole story is much bigger than the political spin of the critics. A young woman is tragically gone, but it is far too easy to say the police are to blame. This tragedy was 20-25 years in the making and there are many that played a part in it.

Continuing to ignore the reality of what is taking place, will only increase the likelihood of similar tragedies either to members of the public, or the officers themselves. But speaking to what is really going on, doesn’t quite sell as much advertising as sensational headlines.

Keep screaming at these officers, keep telling them that they do not care, and do not be surprised when the next tragedy hits. When that happens, I will stay tuned for more headlines from the same people, saying the same tired phrases for the same agenda they have always had. You can set your watch by it.

Just a thought.

Jim Mauro

The opinions express by columnist and contributors to NetNewsLedger may not reflect the editorial stand of NetNewsLedger.

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