Kelowna’s former top cop says the city needs to show leadership if it wants to deal with the current opioid crisis and its impact on the downtown core.
Retired former RCMP Supt. Bill McKinnon, hired earlier this year to look at ways the city can address the issue, said city hall has to take the lead, especially when it comes issues such as the location of shelters and providing services that can help.
“They didn’t lead,” said McKinnon. “I’m not faulting anyone but the city never wanted to lead, they always wanted to be a partner at the table.”
McKinnon delivered his much-anticipated report Monday to city council.
In his presentation, he said the city has been an active participant in the addressing the crisis but now is the time for it to “step up to the plate” and take on a leadership role.
He said it is starting to do that with the Journey Home Strategy, an initiative he fully supports, and other “quick fixes.” They include more road and sidewalk cleaning on Leon Avenue, installing more public garbage bins downtown, hiring more private security patrols, especially downtown and in the Capri area, installing of more porta-potties downtown and a review of the city’s needle pick-up program identified more collection bins for discarded needles were required and prompted a plan for three needle collection bins for members of the public to safely dispose of needles they find.
In his report, McKinnon said the the city should lead a committee involving stakeholders such as Interior Health, the RCMP, city policy and planning officials, bylaws officers, B.C. Housing, the Uptown Rutland Business Association,the Downtown Kelowna Association and the Chamber of Commerce, that can work collaboratively to come up with actions to deal with the social impact of the opioid and homelessness crisis.
He said through the committee, the city needs to develop performance measures to gauge progress, but must make the plans flexible and also identify and address public information gaps.
Repeating a line he used in the past, the former 40-year police officer said the city will not “arrest its way out of the problem.” And he noted the courts treat public drug use that may result in arrests as a health issue nowadays when it comes to sentencing.
McKinnon even addressed his own change of thinking as he worked his way through what he described as a very complex issue over the last four months.
He said while he was opposed to properly operated drug injection sites when he was the city’s officer in charge at the Kelowna RCMP detachment, his thinking has changed because he now sees it save lives.
And, he added, they are now sanctioned by the province.
McKinnon said part of the leadership he believes the city has to show is in deciding where homeless shelters should be located in future.
Pointing to the example of the controversial Cornerstone shelter on Leon Avenue downtown, he said while it was created due to a “life and death” situation where people would have been left out on the street in winter to freeze to death if it had not opened, a better job needs to be done in future when it comes to locating shelters.
Cornerstone has been blamed for some of the problems downtown because it is a harm-reduction shelter where drug use is allowed.
McKinnon pointed to its close proximity to the nearby Gospel Mission shelter, where drug use is not allowed, the downtown public health outreach centre and the location where IH’s mobile safe drug consumption unit regularly parks downtown.
That means, he said, as many as 220 or more homeless, drug addicted or people with mental health issues congregate in the area.
He said the city also needs to continue lobbying for more resources for public health and drug addiction and mental health treatment and for more police officers for the city so initiatives such as the downtown bike patrol can restart and more RCMP-public health worker teams can be employed in the city.
For McKinnon, the bottom-line is the solutions must not only be about crime reduction but saving lives.
And part of that will require public education, he said.
After delivering his report, he told reporters there’s a lot of people with a lot of opinions but “they don’t have a full understanding of the issues.”
“And that’s the reason they say a lot of things that aren’t really true,” he said.
City council received McKinnon’s report and acting city manager Joe Creron said city staff are preparing a report for council on ways to implement McKinnon’s recommendations.
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