Community policing in Canada: crime prevention through relationship building - Keeping Canada Safe - CBC-TV
Community policing in Canada: crime prevention through relationship building
By Al Donato  

Photo above: Officer from the Somali Liason Unit speaks to a member of the Rexdale community in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo courtesy: Keeping Canada Safe)

Calgary Police constable Kirby Adolph wanted to eat lunch at Tim Hortons, but his companion wasn’t so keen.

A few police officers were sitting near the entrance. Adolph’s companion was an at-risk youth, with his own reasons for feeling apprehensive.

At that point, Adolph decided that he had to remind the teen who he was.

"You know you’re with a police officer, right?” he asked the teen.

“Well, you’re different,” the teen replied.

As conflicting as it was, the teen’s answer illustrated the success of Adolph’s job and of youth gang prevention officers. A patrol cop for seven years, Adolph has spent the past three years as an officer in youth gang prevention. With Youth At Risk Development program (YARD), the constable ditches the uniform, plays hockey, and offers employment advice.

If YARD sounds unconventional, that’s because it’s based on the community policing model – a proactive form of law enforcement that more Canadian police forces are adopting in their attempts to improve community relationships and prevent crime before it happens.

What Is Community Policing?

As Public Safety describes, community policing comes from an entirely different attitude than traditional policing. At its core, community policing is a shifting of priority: community needs and public trust over traditional crime control methods. It relies on a more proactive form of finding solutions, from officers who have become familiar to locals over a period of time.

Measuring this approach’s success is tricky. Evaluating through arrest rates doesn’t fit with the spirit of the approach, which prioritizes ongoing commitment to reducing local problems. How well community policing works is dependent on how it’s executed in a specific area, community feedback, and long-term crime reduction.

Officers from the Somali Unit join prayers at a Rexdale, ON mosque. (Photo courtesy: Keeping Canada Safe)Officers from the Somali Liason Unit join prayers at a Rexdale, ON mosque. (Photo courtesy: Keeping Canada Safe)

Feedback improves when community members can identify with law enforcement. A report by the Council of Canadian Academies states that when a police force visibly represents a community, it’s more likely to be accepted and seen as actually working. The effects of this may be even more pronounced in heavily racialized communities.

Most police departments across Canada have adopted the community police model, but in different ways. Community policing may take the form of a specialized unit for a minority group, such as the Vancouver Chinese Community Policing Centre. Others exist as small centres scattered across isolated or rural areas. Several First Nations and Inuit communities police themselves, under Public Safety’s Indigenous Policing program. Some provinces are more active in community policing.

The Somali Liaison Unit

Canada is home to one of the largest Somali populations outside of Somalia. Many are newcomers; in five years, over 4,300 Somali immigrants arrived in Canada, a Statistics Canada survey reports.

Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood is home to many Somali-Canadians, including Toronto Police Services’ (TPS) Somali Liaison Unit.

“When you look at the officers, the first impression was these are the bad guys. You want to stay away from them and that is so wrong."

The unit was created following TPS’ Project Traveller, which saw 44 people arrested in controversial drug raids in the Dixon Rd. area in 2013. As detailed in a Trent University graduate student’s research, community backlash criticized how police treated Somali locals, with some viewing their actions as excessive and stigma-inducing. It describes how Somali youth in Rexdale may perceive police discrimination and unfair surveillance based on their race, class, age, or refugee status.

Omar Farouk, president of the International Muslims Organization of Toronto in Rexdale,  says residents didn’t think so kindly of the Somali Liaison Unit when it was first introduced.

“When you look at the officers, the first impression was these are the bad guys,” he says. “You want to stay away from them and that is so wrong, you know? By being with them, by going out with them, their homes, to the mosques, to the churches it helps to remove that misconception, that misunderstanding.”

“The community needs to know that we're here for good times, too, not just to come and arrest somebody.”

Somali Liaison Unit officer Ammar Khan often attends mosque services in the community while in uniform. But the first time he did, people were afraid he was there to arrest someone. It’s changed now, as Khan has been a weekly attendee.

“After the congregation is done, sometimes people even report crimes to me, you know, that I don't know if they would have done if I wasn’t coming here regularly,” he says.

Fellow unit officer Brian Beadman says it’s especially important for kids to know they’re around for community engagements. The constables run an afterschool recreation room every Monday and Friday, and take neighbourhood kids to watch sports. Their latest expedition was to a Blue Jays game.

“The community needs to know that we're here for good times, too, not just to come and arrest somebody,” Beadman says.

Calgary’s YARD

YARD’s 2014 evaluation report paints a self-portrait of the youth who need the program.

Most are male, ages 13 to 16, who are still attending school, but have been suspended or expelled at some point. Many self-identify as Caucasian, Black or Indigenous,  and almost a quarter are immigrants. Some live with single parents, others live in shelters.

When youth are first referred to the program, all, or almost all, their friends are in gangs. In a slide presentation of the report, further information was revealed: half of the youth admitted to or are suspected of being in a gang, and 52 per cent report knowing at least two friends who’ve had run-ins with the law. Almost one in five weren’t afraid to flaunt their affiliations; 17 per cent had visible gang tattoos or attire upon intake.

“You can look at the big [successes] like graduating high school… but I think we more look at success in the small things."

With so many different backgrounds, it’s important to Adolph that what he does is individualized for each youth. Each YARD participant is paired up with a cop and a social worker, who work with the youth in meeting whatever goals they decide to work on. Attending school, participating in sports, and holding down a job are regular concerns youth ask Adolph for help with.

The success is subtle

“You can look at the big ones like graduating high school… but I think we more look at success in the small things, like improved relationships at home or not breaching curfew,” Adolph says, adding that some YARD participants have gone on to receive university scholarships.

At the end of the program, YARD’s report revealed some concrete results: YARD graduates were less likely to join a gang.

Followed over time, YARD youth had a 68 per cent success rate in avoiding criminal behaviour. This was nine per cent higher than non-participating eligible local youth, and 36 per cent more those who dropped out of YARD before receiving support services.

For Adolph and his teens, just being there as a fellow human being can be enough to build a relationship. Adolph gets phone calls from youth whenever they’re having family problems or probation issues.

“Once they realize we're not there, the things they tell us are confidential…we're not using it in an investigation. That's the way we build that trust,” he says.

Officers from the Somali Unit join prayers at a Rexdale, ON mosque. (Photo courtesy: Keeping Canada Safe)Officers from the Somali Liason Unit join prayers at a Rexdale, ON mosque. (Photo courtesy: Keeping Canada Safe)

Policing and public perception

Research compiled by the Ontario Ministry of Child and Youth Services states that around the 1960s the Canadian public started distrusting the police. Advances in technology like radio dispatching and car patrols caused cops to lose touch with neighbourhood residents they used to know personally through their foot patrols.

Most of Canada likes the idea of police. Statistics Canada reports that 76 per cent of Canadians have confidence in police as an institution. Visible minorities were only six per cent less likely to state this than the rest of Canadians.

But polls regularly report mixed approval ratings for local police. A 2016 Mainstreet Research poll states that almost one in two Calgary residents disapprove of the Calgary police; a 2015 poll reported that almost one in two Torontonians believed police treated certain races differently. This perception plays a role in whether or not Canadians will cooperate with local police, but also one that community policing might improve on with proper community consultation.

The challenge of funding for community policing

A study of Public Safety’s Indigenous policing program reveals that from 2015 to 2016, many police forces racked up $7.4 million in necessary expenditures that the government wasn’t able to reimburse. These costs include overtime pay for prisoner transportation and criminal investigations.

Officers in the program often criticized working conditions in the study. Broken down stations, inadequate lock-up areas, and understaffing were major shortcomings for them.

YARD’s funding comes from the Calgary Police Foundation. Public Safety reports it takes $23,348 to fund a single YARD participant. It’s the fourth most expensive youth gang prevention project to run in Canada. Funds have been spent on private tutoring, clothes for job interviews, and recreational opportunities. 

Although it seems pricy, program costs are a drop in the overall police budget. In fact, increasing funding for community policing models may cut down on this cost, the  Council of Canadian Academies' report suggests. Canadians spent $13.9 billion on police budgets in the 2014-2015 fiscal year. Since most cops are “generalists,” the resources needed to train them can be a money drain.

Watch Keeping Canada Safe Thursdays at 9/9:30NT or online

Also on CBC