Northeast council demands public meeting with Island OPP commander following resident’s response-time woes

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NORTHEAST TOWN – Last week, Northeast Town Mayor Al MacNevin shared with his council a concern he received from an Honora Bay taxpayer involving an attempted break and enter to her residence on June 9 and the taxpayers’ worry about her response from local police. This prompted the mayor to write a letter to Staff Sergeant Helena Wall of the Manitoulin detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), seeking a meeting.

“I am writing to you to express my concerns regarding OPP coverage on Manitoulin Island and specifically within the Town of NEMI,” the mayor’s letter begins. “One of my constituents recently contacted me regarding an incident that took place on Bayshore Road in NEMI last Tuesday (June 9), when she was awakened by the noise of a prowler at her home. This prowler was trying to gain access to her residence. She called 911 prior to 6 am and was told that the OPP would not be able to get there until 7 am because the officer was coming from Espanola and that Manitoulin OPP shifts were not starting until 7 am. Obviously, this is not acceptable.”

“Recently I sent you an email regarding the Highway 540 and 551 roadblocks in M’Chigeeng First Nation with a series of questions about the OPP’s role in mitigating the impact of the closures on the travelling public,” the letter to the staff sergeant continued. “I received an answer from you that the role of the OPP is ‘to ensure public safety and to keep the peace.’ I feel that having no officers available on Manitoulin Island to respond quickly to a threat to anyone in their home fails to meet the threshold of ensuring public safety.”

The mayor concluded the letter by requesting that Staff Sergeant Wall attend the next meeting of council, to have taken place yesterday, June 23. 

The Expositor spoke with the 72-year-old widow who had the near-encounter on June 9, and who asked to remain anonymous.

“I had been lying in bed awake when I heard a soft noise outside,” she explained, noting that this occurred just before 6 am.

The woman said she had just started to feel comfortable in her surroundings following the loss of her husband two years ago and had been gaining more and more confidence as the months passed. She said she always takes precautions, though, on top of locking her doors. Bear spray is kept nearby and she sleeps with her key fob on her nightstand. The neighbours know that if the panic button goes off and the alarm is sounded, something is wrong.

After she heard the noise she decided to get up and have a look. There she saw a man walking along her deck, obviously having just finished trying one door and moving on to the next. She froze. He turned and saw her and they stood, face to face, through the glass. She explained that he made a motion as though he needed to use a phone. She quickly turned and went to call 9-1-1.

“He took off,” she said.

The call for police was made at 5:55 am. “I hid after that, afraid to look,” she added.

The woman said that about 10-15 minutes later, the police called back to ask a few questions, such as ‘is he still there?’ She was also told that ‘there is nobody on the Island, we’re coming from Espanola.’

“I couldn’t believe it,” she shared. “I was already in a state of shock and very fearful.”

The woman said she then called a neighbour to tell him what happened and who came right away. While hopping into his standard transmission truck, the neighbour realized that the truck had been rolled back a few feet. A mysterious glove was also inside his garage. It would seem that a culprit had been there, too.

“I was definitely panic-stricken,” she continued. “I had finally gotten confident the last few months and was feeling really, really good.”

The victim said she spoke with the staff sergeant and it was explained that there are no officers on shift from 5 am and 7 am (which has been the case for years).

“I’m uneasy sitting here in the evening,” she added. “The response did not make me feel secure; I had to rely on neighbours.”

She noted that if it weren’t for a number of retired OPP officers living nearby who have offered their help, she would give considerable thought to leaving her beloved Island home.

The Expositor requested an interview with Staff Sergeant Wall, but she is currently on training. Constable Wendy Forcier, a media relations officer with the OPP, did respond to this newspaper’s queries and offered a face-to-face meeting with detachment’s commanding officer, Detective Inspector Megan Cavanagh.

When asked about the hours of coverage, Constable Forcier explained that hours of operation are determined by looking at the calls for service and resource requirements over an extended period. “If it’s determined that a change in hours of operation would better meet the community’s needs then the OPP will make the necessary adjustments.”

Asked if 24-hour coverage is a possibility, Constable Forcier said it could be, dependent on the aforementioned calls for service analysis.

As for the concern that responding officer(s) came from Espanola, Constable Forcier said “The OPP does take all necessary steps to maintain policing standards. Manitoulin OPP is a cluster detachment with officers responding with ‘closest to the call’ technology, a process whereby dispatchers are able to utilize global positioning system (GPS) technology to identify and send the closest unit(s) to high priority calls. Units selected to attend these calls are based on their proximity to the call, regardless of their detachment affiliation. Operational decisions are made by detachment and regional OPP staff, in consultations with Police Service Boards (in this case a Community Policing Advisory Committee) and community stakeholders, on a regular basis.”

“In this case, the closest on-duty officer was located in Espanola, a satellite detachment to Manitoulin, at that particular time,” Constable Forcier said.

The Expositor noted last year’s $46 million provincial budget cut to OPP services (from $1.7 billion to $1.12 billion) and queried as to whether this is having an effect on the Manitoulin detachment. Constable Forcier responded by saying that part of the OPP’s ongoing efforts of being fiscally responsible include, “two main budget implications that are marked to explore for opportunities to help manage the financial constraints: cost efficiency and procurement – A 10 percent reduction in the other direct operating expenditures budget (vehicles, uniforms, etc.); and workforce efficiency – The OPP is moving from a two percent vacancy rate to a five percent vacancy rate. On average, compared to other police services, the five percent vacancy rate is in line with other police services in Ontario. We are not outside of the norm.”

“It is our goal to improve efficiencies to keep up with the ever-changing business and technology environments,” the constable continued. “We continue to work collaboratively with our partners and stakeholders and to engage our members as we comply with provincial policies and remain fiscally responsible. The OPP remains committed to public safety and the citizens of Ontario including the citizens served by the Manitoulin detachment.”

Mayor MacNevin told The Expositor on Monday that he had received word from Detective Inspector Cavanagh that she would speak with him in some capacity about his concerns, but said that OPP is not permitted to take part in Zoom meetings (which is how the Northeast Town is currently hosting meetings of council), and asked that the press not be present for the meeting. The mayor’s and council’s request, however, is for the detachment commander to meet with them at a public meeting.