Back in high school in Streetsville in the mid 1980s, Mark Mitchell’s friend wanted to fill out an application to join the local police force in Peel Region. The only thing was, his friend didn’t have a car. Fortunately, Mitchell had his parents’ car and got him there to fill out the application.
“I decided while I was there I might as well apply, too,” says Mitchell. In the end, his friend’s application was rejected while Mitchell was accepted onto the force.
What started out as perhaps an afterthought by a young man just starting out, has turned into a distinguished career. Mitchell is now Chief Mark Mitchell of the Kawartha Lakes Police Service, having officially taken on the role Aug. 31, after former Chief John Hagarty retired.
Mitchell began serving on the force in Lindsay in 1990, and so for 28 years has called this community home. He served as an inspector for a decade before taking over the reins from Hagarty. Since he joined the force right after high school, Mitchell was determined to get his post-secondary credentials, which he did later in life, getting a BA in Criminal Justice and a Masters in Defense Studies.
While he got great mentoring from Hagarty, Mitchell also knew when to take on key opportunities. One such opportunity saw Mitchell deploy to Afghanistan for a year in 2009-10, when he was seconded to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s International Peace Operations branch. That meant being deployed to Kandahar in Afghanistan. While he had to leave behind his wife, son, and daughter – with the kids in high school at the time – he said there was no easy time to do it. “But it was the right time in my career and they understood that.”
At first Mitchell was embedded with the U.S. military and then the Canadian police task force as an adviser. It was a year he calls “an incredible experience.”
His biggest take-away from his year overseas was about the “sheer complexity of injecting ourselves into the affairs of another country, and the unrealistic expectations” many held that real change could occur quickly.
“Here was a country that was devastated by 50 years of conflict, as if we could fix that in a couple of years.”
Mitchell says it will take a generation of commitment. “And even then it will be important to define success for Afghanistan, through their lens — not by our values, or we risk drifting into colonialism.”
Whole Community Approach
It’s obvious that Lindsay’s new police chief is a progressive thinker, not unlike his former mentor, Hagarty. In a discussion of the effects of poverty and its connection to police calls, Mitchell says there’s no doubt that the “vast majority” of calls are connected not only to lack of income, but to related issues of poverty, housing, education, mental health, and addictions.
“Mental health issues can certainly lead to addictions, and sometimes addictions lead to mental health concerns,” says Mitchell.
When he thinks back to the many calls he attended as an officer related to these issues, there’s one that jumps out. A woman called in to say there was a break-in at her Lindsay home and that the perpetrator was still there in her house. Officers, including Mitchell, responded quickly. When they arrived at her house, they found an elderly woman who pointed out the person who was still in her home – but there was no one there where she was pointing.
“She was suffering from dementia and this underscored the need for compassion,” recalls Mitchell. It was clear she was poor, too, and did not have the supports she needed.
Police have come a long way in how these complex social issues are approached, with the understanding that enforcement alone can’t solve these challenges.
The Community Response Program is one way that things have changed. A police offer — Administrative Sergeant Dave Murtha – is teamed up with a mental health crisis nurse two days a week. The partnership between the police and Ross Memorial Hospital aims to help those in crisis who often end up at the hospital or in the justice system. In turn, they often bring issues to something called the ‘situation table,’ says Mitchell. It’s a group that meets bi-weekly, with representatives from various agencies involved, such as police, health, mental health, education, Children’s Aid Society and housing.
“We’ve seen tremendous success with this,” says Mitchell, “because we’re able to intervene earlier in all kinds of ways, with a range of expertise.”
In 2017 there were over 200 cases brought to the situation table. There were 123 home visits made in response to those 200 cases, and of those 123 visits, only six of them resulted in contact with the police 30 days after.
The Kawartha Lakes Police Service just recently adopted their new strategic plan for the next three years, with a focus on ‘Earning and Maintaining the Support of our Community.’ With Mitchell at the helm, it’s clear he aims to achieve this with progressive policing that is embedded and connected with the community.