A Simple Fix

A few Wellington Advertiser employees were a bit perturbed to hear several Police Services Board (PSB) members denigrate this newspaper – or at least its reach and following – at last week’s PSB meeting.

To summarize, the board was discussing how to improve two things: Wellington OPP communications and the negative perception some members of the public have of local police.

When it came to the Advertiser, which the same day issued a 48-page paper with tons of ads from across the county (as usual) and a 10-page Remembrance Day feature, PSB chair Earl Campbell, county councillor Diane Ballantyne and former Erin mayor Allan Alls made statements questioning how many people read the newspaper. 

Their comments were at best ignorant and at worst deliberately dishonest.

But that’s little surprise coming from this trio, one of whom led the most secretive municipality in the country. Ironically, perhaps one of the few things all three have in common is their complete lack of knowledge about these topics.

PSB members, county councillors, the warden and Wellington OPP Inspector Steve Thomas have been talking in circles for months about the OPP’s communication and reputation issues, like it’s some sort of an enigma. 

In reality it’s a pretty simple fix: lose the attitude and make everyone do their job.

Because if the way police deal with professional journalists is any indication of the way they deal with the public on a daily basis, it’s little wonder why there is a perception problem.

We’ve all had experiences with bad cops before. You know the type: arrogant, chip on their shoulder and an above-the-law, holier-than-thou attitude grounded in the false belief they can do whatever they want (and you have to put up with it) because, well, they’re a cop.

In a nutshell, what we’re seeing in recent years with the Wellington OPP is what happens when this toxic attitude is allowed to permeate throughout an organization, either left unchecked – or worse, outright endorsed – by those in charge.

The PSB is not innocent in this debacle either. Its members have for years simply served as cheerleaders for the OPP, clapping like trained seals, patting police on the back and rubber stamping nearly every request they get from inspectors, with nary a critical question asked or issue discussed in any significant detail.

It’s a joke and an insult to taxpayers left footing the bill.

(As an aside, the OPP usually provides its annual report to the PSB every spring. This year that did not happen until September, not long after an Advertiser reporter inquired with county officials about why the report had not yet been provided).

The latest solution floated is to hire a civilian OPP communications staffer at over $100,000 a year.

While the idea of hiring someone who actually has some media knowledge and experience isn’t the worst idea to come from the OPP or PSB, it is totally unnecessary if the current OPP media officers were actually made to do their jobs.

The media is routinely denied basic information (bomb threat at a local school? Sorry, the OPP can’t say which school, for some asinine reason).

And police seem to loathe any requests that might require the slightest bit of effort to fulfill. 

One time, an Advertiser reporter was trying to get information about an emergency call on a weekend and was told days later by a media relations officer that police are “not at your beck and call.”

And it’s not just after-hours requests that get the OPP’s knickers in a knot. Top brass at the Wellington branch once tried to privately admonish this newspaper’s editor and publisher because our reporter had the audacity to ask a few questions on a Friday afternoon.

Currently, one of our reporters has two ongoing, unfulfilled requests for basic data from the OPP for stories we think the public would be interested in seeing. One was made 10 months ago, the other nine months ago. It’s ridiculous.

(UPDATE: About six hours after this editorial was published online, the OPP provided some preliminary information related to both of the above requests.)

Lately the experience of journalists varies greatly depending on which media relations officer we get, and unfortunately the more responsive of the two is moving out of the role.

But it appears both have been told to focus on posting OPP propaganda directly to Twitter (now called “X”) and Facebook.

Of course, absent in this failed social media campaign is any hint of news that might not paint the OPP in a positive light.

It’s pure spin devoid of any substance, created by staff members who once were facilitators but now serve the role of corporate gatekeepers.

To be clear, the police are funded by and serve the public on whose behalf journalists are asking questions. The current inspector clearly realizes part of his job is to appease elected officials on county council and the PSB, which is, of course, easily done.

But placating politicians should never replace answering to the public and a large part of that is dealing with the media.

It’s obvious, both through our own experiences at the Advertiser as well as conversations with other journalists in the area, this OPP regime doesn’t care much at all about fulfilling that part of its job.

This editorial is in no way a criticism of OPP rank-and-file officers who work hard to keep residents safe.

But in our entire 55-year history, the Advertiser has never had such difficulty dealing with police as it has under the last two OPP inspectors.

Decades of good will has been destroyed and things are getting progressively worse with each passing week.

But for what? And why? What’s the endgame?

These are the sort of questions PSB officials should be asking police instead of disparaging the most successful, longest-serving and most well-read publication in Wellington County and the top community newspaper in the province. 

Talk about a red herring.