Ottawa police budget survey criticisms are ‘legitimate,’ board chair says

The chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board acknowledged criticisms Monday that a recent survey suggesting a majority of respondents supported hiking the service’s budget in 2022 was not representative of residents most affected by the police.

The survey, released last week ahead of Monday afternoon’s OPSB meeting, caught public attention with a statistic showing 51 per cent of respondents believed that the Ottawa police budget should rise in 2022. About 26 per cent said they were in favour of a decrease, with the rest unsure (eight per cent) or in favour of a freeze (16 per cent).

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Other findings suggested declining levels of trust in local police since public polling was last done in 2018 and a push for the force to offload some responsibilities for issues such as mental health, addiction and other social service calls.

But the budget figures, which come as the board has said it will eye a zero-per cent increase in its funding where possible this year, struck a nerve with many community safety advocates.

Four groups — Horizon Ottawa, the Coalition Against More Surveillance, the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition and the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women — jointly released a statement questioning the legitimacy of the survey based on who filled it out and where it was available.

While 2,400 of the 3,200 respondents to the survey were white, low-income and racialized residents of Ottawa were especially under-represented.

Fewer than 100 people each from Black, Indigenous and South Asian communities, for example, filled out the survey, falling well below each demographic’s representation in the overall makeup of Ottawa. Some 12 per cent of respondents didn’t provide ethnicity information.

Only 14 per cent of respondents reported a household income of $60,000 or less, a demographic that makes up a third of the city’s population, according to the survey.

Some 13 per cent of respondents identified as having a disability, short of the 22 per cent across Ottawa.

Highlighting the shortcomings of its own methodology, the OPSB survey itself noted that some IP addresses submitted multiple responses, with one such address responsible for a total of 45 submissions.

Speaking to media before Monday’s OPSB meeting, board chair Diane Deans acknowledged the survey likely did not speak for the entire city.

“Some of those concerns are legitimate. This is one input of many that we hope to have through the budget process,” Deans said.

“These were 4,000 people with an opinion, they’re not necessarily representative of the population and certainly not representative of the people, perhaps, most impacted by police.”

OPS Chief Peter Sloly told reporters that the survey is just one tool that informs the budget process, which began formally in late July but is part of an ongoing process of assessing the city’s needs.

“The survey and the consultation itself does not represent the totality of all the efforts that the board and the service has made to work with communities, work in communities, listen to communities, to engage with communities. That goes on every single day, every single year,” he said.

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Deans said both she and Sloly are committed to following the “themes” that emerged from the survey, including calls to shift responsibilities in emergency response away from police, who she said have been the “default” call in a crisis until now.

Some 73 per cent of respondents were in favour of reallocating OPS responsibility over some social issues to other community service providers, a statistic that Nora Ottenhof of Vivic Research said during Monday’s OPSB meeting was likely an “underrepresentation” of public attitudes.

Another theme called for improving responses to mental health crises, which the local service laid out a strategy for in its last budget deliberations.

Other responses meanwhile aligned around the need for more OPS officers in communities facing high rates of crime and greater focus on gun and domestic violence.

The OPS budget will be up for board approval at its meeting on Nov. 22.

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