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Ombudsman mulls new probe after three Ontario police suicides

Last Updated Sep 18, 2018 at 3:20 pm EDT

TORONTO – Ontario’s ombudsman is mulling whether to take another look at how provincial police deal with officers who suffer serious stress on the job and, in some cases, end up killing themselves.

In a statement on Tuesday, Paul Dube said he had directed his staff to assess new complaints and issues related to suicides and operational stress injuries among Ontario Provincial Police officers. Dube said he wanted to see whether a follow-up systemic investigation was warranted.

“As I learned recently of the tragic deaths of three more OPP officers by suicide, I was left wondering whether it was time for my office to follow up on our 2012 systemic investigation,” Dube said.

“We have begun with preliminary research, and encourage people affected by the issue of operational stress injuries in the OPP to come forward with their stories as we lay the groundwork for a possible investigation.”

Following an in-depth probe in 2012, the Ombudsman’s office produced a 155-page report called “In the Line of Duty” that found more officers had killed themselves over the previous 23 years than were being killed doing police work.

The review of how the provincial police force and Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services were addressing the issues produced 34 recommendations, among them calling for beefed-up employee support and assistance programs, and immediate referrals for officers and relatives needing help.

The report also recommended police collect data on operational stress injury claims and suicides.

“OPP leaders maintain that police culture has changed, that trauma-induced injuries are no longer seen as a sign of weakness, and that ample support is available for injured officers,” the report said. “But the social taboos surrounding mental illness and suicide are unrelenting.”

The suicides of three officers in as many weeks prompted the head of the Ontario Provincial Police Association last month to write a deeply personal and emotional letter urging his members to reach out if they found themselves in emotional distress. Rob Jamieson said he wanted his almost 9,000 members to know that if a 20-plus-year veteran like himself could run into difficulty, as he did four years ago, anyone could.

“You see some of the worst things that you ever want to see,” Jamieson told The Canadian Press. “I’m not a doctor, but there is just no way that you cannot be affected by these things that you deal with on a daily basis — that just are not normal to see and are just not normal to experience.”

The suicide rate among police officers is roughly double the overall national average of 10 per 100,000 people, according to the advocacy group Tema.

Dube acknowledged that provincial police Commissioner Vince Hawkes has announced an internal mental-health review, but said that didn’t preclude an investigation by his office. He said the preliminary assessment would involve speaking to complainants, the OPP, ministry officials, police associations and others.

“Everyone agrees that this life-and-death issue is vitally important,” Dube said. “There is no such thing as too many people looking for solutions to this.”

The ombudsman is an independent and impartial officer of the legislature who resolves and investigates more than 20,000 public complaints a year about provincial government bodies, municipalities, universities and school boards.