[originally published: Ottawa Citizen March 5, 2018]
On June 28, 1988, the municipalities making up the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton replaced 27 different emergency service phone numbers with one: 911. Overcoming petty political turf wars, Ottawa was one of the last major cities in Canada to adopt this sensible system for summoning emergency services. It was just one part of a larger public policy commitment designed, among other things, to improve upon Ottawa’s dire survival rates in medical emergencies.
A critical part of the new 911 system was the creation of an integrated tiered-response protocol which would simultaneously dispatch paramedics, firefighters and police officers to more serious medical emergencies. While each of these essential services preserved its primary emergency responsibilities, cross-training meant that firefighters or police arriving first at a medical emergency could begin to perform essential evaluation and intervention until such time as paramedics arrived. This integrated approach to responding to our community’s emergencies works.
In the 30 years since 911 was implemented, our community has faced a number of major challenges: a crippling ice storm in 1998, the shooting at OC Transpo in 2000 and the heart-breaking murder of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo in 2014. Each time, our first responders met the challenges.
Today, first responders face a troubling increase in the use of potentially fatal opioids such as fentanyl. However, despite some early obstacles to equip first responders with appropriate street-level treatments for people in crisis, we are now properly geared-up to address opioid emergencies.
Every police officer, like every other first responder, is equipped with the drug Naloxone, which is administered as a nasal spray to help stop the effects of an overdose. To put this crisis in perspective, these opioids are so potent that first responders themselves are at greater risk of secondary contamination if there are even traces of drugs on patients or at emergency scenes. Ottawa’s emergency services are training and equipping themselves to deal with this new problem as we have all done in the past.
Enter the Special Investigations Unit. As one of several police oversight agencies in Ontario, the SIU persists in taking an impractical and unpredictable view of its investigative authority when police, as part of their tiered-response obligations, employ their training to administer drugs to counter opioid overdoses. I am in full agreement with the concerns expressed by Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau and Councillor Eli El-Chantiry, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board. Both have challenged SIU’s expectation that every interaction between a police officer and drug overdose victim requires notice to, and potential investigation by, the SIU. This is impractical and arguably out of touch with what police officers do within the tiered-response protocol.
The patrol officer’s responsibilities become even more complicated by the SIU’s interpretation of the Police Services Act as providing authority to investigate a police officer’s steps to assist with patient treatment, or where the officer does not intervene. And SIU Director Tony Laparco’s views do not end with police intervention in opioid emergencies but may also include calls involving the use of cardiac defibrillators or other medical acts.
What is troubling about Mr. Laparco’s unexpected reach into the police role in tiered-response systems is his lack of awareness of the role of the base hospital. At the heart of any 911 system is a group of doctors at a local hospital who provide training and oversight of each medical emergency where first responders act. Mr. Laparco can rest assured that the actions of police at medical emergencies are already part of an accountability system.
Given the authority wielded by the SIU to recommend criminal charges be laid against a police officer, our members are damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t within the tiered-response system. At a minimum, the unpredictable expectations from the SIU will cause confusion for police within the tiered-response system; but they also expose police to an arduous SIU investigation process with the potential for criminal charges. Ottawa police still remember the SIU’s exuberance to investigate the actions of a robot used to secure a murder-suicide incident only a few years ago.
Police officers are fully aware of the importance of oversight agencies. However, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police and the Police Association of Ontario share concerns about the over-zealous interpretation of the SIU mandate by Mr. Laparco. We seldom have differences of this magnitude between an oversight agency, on the one hand; and the chiefs’ organization and the police associations on the other. The resolution to this can only come from tAttorney General Yasir Naqvi or Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Marie-France Lalonde.
The oversight of police actions by organizations such as the SIU should, at a minimum, be predictable and consistent. In the case of the treatment of opioid emergencies, it is anything but.
Matt Skof is president of the Ottawa Police Association.