Three years after the suicide of a Toronto police officer prompted the province’s police watchdog to promise a systemic review of officer mental health, the review still hasn’t begun.
The problem, according to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), is a lack of resources and the fact that two other systemic reviews are already underway.
Back in 2016, director Gerry McNeilly said that a growing number of complaints he was hearing about police mental health issues signalled a pressing need to tackle the problem, province-wide. So one week after the suicide of a Toronto officer, McNeilly said he would employ a special tool of his office to launch a systemic review of officer mental health and suicides, examining police services across Ontario and making recommendations for change.
“I think we’re setting up officers to fail,” McNeilly said in an interview in February 2016, saying he hoped his office would officially announce and launch the systemic review mid-year.
In the years since, police officer suicides have continued, with a spike in 2018 prompting Ontario’s chief coroner Dirk Huyer to launch a review of nine deaths.
Critics say that while they welcome that review, it has long been apparent that a detailed, provincial examination — such as the one committed to by the OIPRD — was warranted.
“It’s a little too late for us, and it’s a little sad that it took this number of deaths for them to spring into action,” said Heidi Rogers, whose husband, Toronto police Sgt. Richard Rogers, died by suicide in 2014.
When she complained to the OIPRD about the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death, which she says included severe anxiety and bullying, she says she was assured the forthcoming systemic review into officer mental health would tackle the issues.
The delay, Rogers said, has sent a message that “you don’t warrant our attention.”
Spokesperson Rosemary Parker stressed that the OIPRD director “continues to be very concerned about suicides, mental health and operational stress among police officers.” But the review has not been launched due to “resourcing issues” and two other ongoing reviews.
“It has always been the intention of the Director to address a range of issues regarding officer mental health and operational stress in a systemic review, should he be in a position to launch one,” she said.
She noted that McNeilly has, in the mean time, spoken with current and former police officers affected by mental health challenges, and families of officers who have died by suicide, and the majority support a systemic review.
Parker added that such a review would “help in addressing issues police services face with the number of staff off due to operational stress.”
The Star asked Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General if it would consider providing additional resources to the OIPRD in order to help facilitate a review of police officer mental health in the wake of the suicides.
“The Office of the Independent Police Review Director is an independent agency and conducts reviews independent of government,” a spokesperson wrote in an email Thursday in response.
Last week Huyer announced that his office would review the 2018 suicides of nine active, or recently retired, police officers. The number is “far greater than we have seen in many years,” he said, noting that in that last few years there have generally been fewer than five.
The coroner’s office has not released the identities of the officers, but one was a Waterloo Regional officer. None of the 2018 suicides were Toronto police officers.
Huyer hopes the review will have an impact across the province, saying his panel will look for systemic approaches to police wellness and identify reasons why distressed officers aren’t getting the help they need. But the coroner’s review is limiting its examination to the affected police services of the nine officers who died, unlike a broader review that would be undertaken by the OIPRD.
Huyer notes, however, that he may ask other police services for their wellness programs for officers.
Former Ontario ombudsman André Marin said a province-wide, independent probe is needed. Marin’s 2012 report, In the Line of Duty, concluded the OPP and the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services were “reluctant” to support officers suffering from mental health challenges connected to workplace stress.
In an interview, Marin said he believes little has changed since the release of his report, which made recommendations ranging from counteracting stigma to collecting information about police services’ mental health supports.
He noted that three OPP officers died by suicide within a three week-span this past summer, prompting the provincial police force to launch an internal review.
“It’s hard to say whether or not, had this been addressed more seriously, these suicides would have been preventable,” Marin said. “But there are many that feel they have been given the short shrift.”
“I don’t think this is a problem that’s going away any time soon,” he said.
The ability to perform a broad examination of a policing issue in Ontario is among the OIPRD’s greatest powers, and the work undertaken through systemic reviews “has the most potential impact on policing in Ontario,” the agency said in its 2017-2018 annual report.
Complex and resource-intensive undertakings, the 10-year-old agency has completed three systemic reviews to date, including a comprehensive and scathing report on Thunder Bay Police death investigations, released last month. The watchdog is in the midst of two others, examining policies around strip searches and police use of force against people in mental health crisis.
In his recent review of police oversight in Ontario, Court of Appeal Justice Michael Tulloch specifically highlighted the importance of OIPRD systemic reviews, saying inquiries into policing issues should not be wholly left to “the whim of the government of the day.”
“The OIPRD should be properly resourced and funded to study and report on systemic issues in policing,” Tulloch wrote in his report.
Among Tulloch’s recommendations was that the agency receive funding and resources to bolster its investigations. When the previous Liberal government passed its Safer Ontario Act — omnibus policing legislation which acted in part on Tulloch’s report — the OIPRD began implementing plans that included hiring more staff.
But additional resources for the agency are now in limbo, due to a hiring freeze across the public service in June, and then the decision by Doug Ford’s Tory government this summer to halt and review the Safer Ontario Act.
Parker, the OIPRD spokesperson, said the agency is “not in a position” to spend the entirety its 2019 budget of $11.8 million, “partly due to the expenditure freeze, but also because the agency is awaiting the government’s review of the Safer Ontario Act,” she said.
Rogers stresses that she is pleased Huyer has launched his review, saying it will at least garner more attention to the issue of police mental health. Although she feels “nothing has changed” in the years since her husband’s death, she is buoyed by the belief that the younger generation of police officers are more willing to speak out if they are facing a mental health challenge stemming from the job.
“Whereas the older guys, who have been around for a while, their idea of handling (mental health issues) was to go out drinking after a shift,” she said.
With Star files