OPP, county aim to improve communication, public opinion of policing

Police Services Board directs county, police to collaborate on improving communication with public, politicians

GUELPH – Wellington County is considering earmarking $107,000 for a new Wellington OPP media relations coordinator in next year’s budget as the county’s Police Services Board addresses a breakdown in communication between the police and local residents and politicians.

Little is known about the conceptual civilian position, but underlying recent conversations at police board meetings is a negative perception some politicians say residents have about policing in the county.

In April, Warden Andy Lennox told board members that despite the county being a “very safe place,” residents don’t agree.

“[If] people don’t see police officers, then they hear about somebody who had a theft or something, then they think ‘well, nobody’s enforcing the law here,’” Lennox remarked at the time.

Board members have agreed that opinions about policing in the county don’t align with reality.

Provincially-appointed board member Walter Trachsel, who is a former county politician and OPP inspector, said at the time, “The average Joe, they just don’t know.”

Since Lennox broached the touchy subject, and senior OPP officials emphasized cops are indeed doing their jobs regardless of what anyone thinks, the board has casually discussed how to influence residents’ beliefs, and improve communication between the police and the county’s seven municipalities.

Back in January, board chair Earl Campbell spoke about reviving an annual OPP year-in-review publication.

It was last published in 2019 by WHA Publications Ltd., the company that publishes the Wellington Advertiser, and was circulated with the newspaper for over a decade.

Wellington OPP Inspector Steve Thomas has been opposed to restarting the publication, saying an officer had to spend “hundreds of hours” assembling content for it.

The inspector has said the agency continues to value transparency and public reporting, but is doing so “in other ways,” such as with monthly reports to the police board and press releases.

At a Nov. 8 board meeting, the discussion about improving communication returned to the board room.

Lennox asserted the county is one of Canada’s safest communities, and that residents largely have the police to thank.

“We’re doing great, but I think we need to improve our story,” he said.

A positive message about the good police are doing, the warden contended, isn’t getting across, and residents are creating a narrative that the county isn’t safe.

“We’ve beaten this horse several times,” Campbell said, calling for “a champion” to “take this by the bull.”

The board, and some councillors who were in attendance from other communities, including Matthew Bulmer of Puslinch and Jeff Duncan of Erin, voiced support for a year-end statistical report (different from the year-in-review) to be sent to municipalities, with an option to request police attend a council meeting.

Bulmer said in the past an inspector or staff sergeant would have visited Puslinch council once a year.

As a councillor, he said, it allowed him to do his job and ask direct questions of the police, based on constituent concerns.

“It helped the local councillors feel like they had someone they could speak to,” Bulmer said.

The inspector seemed open to visiting with local councils, and also noted the agency would be initiating “coffee with a cop” and “citizens police academy” programs to get more exposure.

Press releases are issued when charges are laid, and each week summarizing traffic-related occurrences, media relations officer Jacob Unger told the board.

“I go through all the occurrences every week for the entire county,” Unger also told the board.

The Advertiser does not receive a press release each time charges are laid by the OPP.

And records indicate 33 weekly summaries of traffic-related occurrences have been issued this year by the OPP (as of Nov. 10), meaning there were at least 12 weeks where no summary was issued at all. The OPP’s most recent weekly summary was received on Oct. 27.

When a release goes out, the OPP also publishes information to Facebook and Twitter, Unger said.

Unger said the OPP gets “a lot of interaction, a lot of clicks, a lot of views.

“People are seeing what we’re putting out there,” he said.

However, the information published on OPP social media channels at times differs from that published in releases and, in some cases, no release is issued at all.

Police will also advertise on the county’s website about its Festive RIDE Campaign and snowmobile safety, Unger said.

County communications manager Andrea Ravensdale told the board residents prefer to get information through email.

Ravensdale suggested the county and police could collaborate on an email list, and sprucing up the year-end police statistical report provided to the board each year in February.

“If [we] decide to the do the Wellington Advertiser, we [need to] find out who’s the champion for that; who’s actually going to take the pictures, who’s going to do the layout, which group is doing that?” Campbell said.

Some board members and politicians voiced dour opinions on the condition of local print news, and questioned or dismissed the value and relevance of the local newspaper to residents.

“I think the question [is], who still reads the paper?’” Campbell said.

“The Wellington Advertiser doesn’t even reach half of my community,” board member and former Erin mayor Allan Alls said.

(In fact, Advertiser circulation data shows 80% of door-to-door deliveries of the print newspaper in the Town of Erin are currently being completed and that doesn’t factor in bulk deliveries to newspaper boxes.)

“Nothing against the Wellington Advertiser, although as mayor they weren’t my best friends,” Alls added, to laughs in the room.

County councillor Diane Ballantyne, who was in attendance at the meeting, said there’s a lot of noise and people no longer get information from a single source.

“As valuable as the Wellington Advertiser is in our communities, not everybody’s reading it, and only a particular constituency for the most part is actually reading [it],” Ballantyne said.

The board was going around in circles, the councillor said, and suggested the OPP return with a communications strategy.

“We need to come up with a strategy here that tells people we’re doing stuff to keep this community safe,” Campbell remarked in agreement.

“Is the OPP prepared to take this on?” he asked the inspector.

The police “own a big part of this,” Thomas responded, suggesting the agency, with the county’s help, develop a media strategy to present to the board in January.

The board accepted the idea, directing the county and OPP to create a public communications plan for the board’s consideration in the new year.