TORONTO - Badly needed changes that would help traumatized provincial police officers cope with operational stress injuries are getting the "bureaucratic brush-off" from the Ontario Provincial Police and the government, Ontario's ombudsman charged Wednesday.
They're failing to take action to help those officers, leading to tragic results, said ombudsman Andre Marin.
Since 1989, 23 active and retired OPP members have killed themselves — two more than were killed in the line of duty, he said after releasing a 150-page report on the issue.
Cops battle with depression, anxiety, nightmares, addictions and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as a culture that tells them they should "suck it up," Marin said.
They're also fighting an outdated bureaucratic system that doesn't even keep statistics on how many OPP officers are suffering from these conditions, he said.
"To call the way they deal with operational stress injury as a shoestring operation would be insulting to shoestrings," he said.
When he provided the OPP and the government with a list of his recommendations five weeks ago, he got an "ostrich-like" reaction, Marin said.
The government was "indifferent," while the OPP dragged its heels, saying they will respond to the recommendations after further study.
"What we've heard from the OPP is a lot of claptrap and drivel, and very little action," he said. "That I find that very disconcerting."
One of his 34 recommendations was to implement education, training and outreach programs designed for officers and family members.
"Couldn't they say yes to that?" Marin said.
He's also calling on the OPP to conduct a provincewide survey to determine the extent of operational stress injuries among its police officers and dedicate a full-time senior officer to developing a program to tackle operational stress injuries and suicide prevention. Other recommendations include improving support for retired officers and their families, similar to what's being done in Calgary and Montreal.
OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis said he would look into the recommendations, but cautioned changes can't be made overnight, particularly when the cash-strapped government is trying to eliminate a $14.4-billion deficit.
"I don't agree that it's just simple to do all that," he said.
"He's talking full-time psychologists, full-time peer counsellors. That means hiring people at a time when money is not plentiful."
But Marin said the OPP has two "shiny new tanks" — what Lewis called armoured vehicles — but only one psychologist for its entire force of 6,152 uniformed officers.
Those vehicles save lives, said Lewis, who took aim at Marin's criticism.
"His personal style and its flamboyancy around trying to take personal potshots, I don't agree with that, that's not my style," he said.
Lewis insists he's committed to helping officers suffering from these injuries.
Admitting you need help is not a career-killer, he said, but he understands why some officers are afraid to tell anyone about it.
Lewis said he struggled with stress in the 1980s when he served on a police tactical team. A fellow officer was killed in a shooting that injured two others.
"I became a little different person for a while," he said.
"I know now that I was going through tough times that I didn't really understand, and I was reluctant to say anything to anybody, because how do you tell your fellow tactical team officers, 'You know what? I'm having a tough time with this.'"
Years later, he realized what he was going through.
"I tell that story for no other reason other than to tell our people, I'm the commissioner of the OPP and I can relate," Lewis said.
"So don't be afraid to come forward. Don't do what I did and hold back."
Over the past five years, there have been 270 claims of operational stress injury by OPP members, he said. About half were accepted as valid by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.