Absent officers, COVID drive drop in Strathroy traffic policing

Traffic enforcement has taken a hit in Strathroy as the town’s small police department wrestles with an officer absenteeism rate that hit nearly 24 per cent this summer.

Strathroy-Caradoc police are currently down four of their 34 officers — three off for various reasons, one retired this month and not yet replaced — for an absenteeism rate of about 12 per cent. That’s not out of the ordinary for a police department, Chief Mark Campbell said.

But in August, eight officers, or nearly 24 per cent, were off the job for reasons ranging from maternity leave and injuries to secondment to other forces.

That forced the department to juggle resources and traffic enforcement — patrolling roads, watching for speeders and running RIDE program roadside sobriety checks — suffered, Campbell said.

“We found ourselves just trying to ensure that we had adequate front-line service and the result of that was not as proactive traffic enforcement,” he said.

“Some of our enforcement numbers had declined in part due to the arrival of the pandemic, but also because we had some challenges with some reduction in that staffing.”

In August, Strathroy police laid 111 Provincial Offences Act charges, which include most traffic-related and speeding offences. That’s down from 168 in the same month last year.

Strathroy, one of the few Southwestern Ontario towns with its own force rather than OPP policing, has 20 uniformed, front-line officers — whose duties include traffic work — and 14 others, including special constables, staff sergeants, criminal investigators and forensics officers.

“You just have to be adaptable to get through those times” of high absenteeism, Campbell said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated the dip in traffic enforcement, he added.

Ontario’s Transportation Ministry offered grace periods on licence and plate renewals, for example. And there was some apprehension among officers and the public on how to interact safely, Campbell said.

When staffing levels return to normal, Strathroy police plan to field a dedicated traffic officer.

Police services board chair Steve Pelkman said the service has not had a history of high absenteeism and ongoing construction in the town’s core makes it hard to gauge what toll less traffic enforcement is having.

Officer absenteeism is an issue in other nearby police departments, too. In London, about 10 per cent of its roughly 800 officers and civilian staff are off the job, and some are unlikely to return.

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