What is the future of Hamilton Police's ACTION team?

Former chief Glenn De Caire's departure comes at a time of big questions for one of his most visible, lauded and controversial projects, the ACTION team. A new chief will have to decide what the future of the team looks like.

Its architect's gone, its funding's cut, a criminal case is proceeding and its tactics are under review

Hamilton Police's ACTION team, known by its yellow jackets, has evolved from its original mandate and has become expert at accompanying parades and protests and canvassing after major crimes. (Terry Asma/CBC)

CBC Hamilton takes a two-part look at the future of Hamilton Police's ACTION team. Here, we examine the many questions surrounding the ACTION strategy; and in Part 2 we look at carding and "cleaning up" the core.

The most visible, lauded and controversial policing strategy that former police chief Glenn De Caire brought to Hamilton was the yellow-jacketed ACTION team in the city core.

His departure comes as the team faces a number of big questions — about the future of its funding, the tactics it relies on, the metrics used to judge its success and the relevance of a downtown focus as the face of the city core has changed dramatically in five years.

With new layers of scrutiny, what should the service's next chief do about the Addressing Crime Trends In Our Neighbourhoods strategy?

The ACTION team has been tainted by its close association with carding. Five of its members are due in court Monday over allegations they falsified tickets — raising questions about its statistics. It has been seen as heavy-handed in its approach to vagrancy in the core. The team, which was created by pulling officers from elsewhere, now faces accusations of just moving crime to other areas. 

(Cory Ruf/CBC)
at the same time, the strategy has won a prestigious policing award. Crime is generally down in the neighbourhoods where it deploys. The strategy includes an innovative program praised for connecting vulnerable people with support.

When determining the ACTION team's future, a new chief will have to try to build on its success while addressing fundamental issues and actual criminal charges. That reconsideration will need to account for what comes out of a provincial overhaul of its overall blueprint for policing in Ontario, with special attention on how police engage with vulnerable people and visible minorities.

Among the questions about ACTION to be addressed:

  • Can ACTION be effective in a world after carding/street checks have been reformed?

  • What will be the lasting damage from the false ticket scandal?

  • Can its statistics be trusted? Are numbers the best gauge of its success anyway?

  • Can the Hamilton Police Service afford to have resources diverted to the team?

Neil Price is a researcher and activist in Toronto who has been critical of the hotspot anti-violence strategy in that city, which De Caire pioneered there and brought a version of to Hamilton.

"Don't just say crime is decreasing. Can we attribute part of that decrease to this practice, this tactic?" he said. "Can you show that there are not adverse effects from that practice that actually outweigh the benefits of doing it?"

'We've moved our mandate'

Officially, the service isn't commenting on the future of ACTION. While it awaits its next chief, this strategy and others continue as if the previous chief was still in charge.

"To speculate on the future of a current initiative in the absence of a new chief would be premature," said Hamilton Police corporate spokesperson Catherine Martin.

The ACTION team launched downtown in May 2010 in response to crime and a perception of  it being unsafe and is credited with making a positive dent.

Since then, through 2014, the service says the team made about 5,000 arrests and given out more than 23,000 tickets. Crime is generally down across downtown and two other neighbourhoods ACTION frequents, McQuesten in the east end and Concession on the Mountain.

The team has become a constant monitoring parades and protests and has been deployed to canvas neighbourhoods after major crimes. The geographic area the team covers has become more flexible, the team's supervisors said.

That's an evolution from its original mandate. If all the questions facing ACTION mean the strategy has to evolve, that's nothing new, the team's supervisors say.

(Terry Asma/CBC)
"The downtown area isn't as 'target-rich' as it once was in 2010 because of the efforts of the unit," said
Inspector Mike Worster, who oversees the service's community mobilization efforts, including ACTION. "So we've moved our mandate, and we're pushing them out to the other areas now."

He wouldn't speculate on a new chief's plans, but said he can't imagine the yellow jackets going away.

"It's not a pilot project – it's permanent," said Staff Sergeant Scott Balinson, who took the helm of the team in January. "That'd be like saying to me, 'Are you going to get rid of your homicide unit?'"

'It's going to trigger a review'

The service has relied on numbers and metrics to justify what the team does and how its impact is being felt. But a court case set to continue Monday could shed some light on, and spark a review of, the pressure that ACTION officers feel to meet quotas.

Five officers from the ACTION team are expected in court on Monday for a hearing on criminal charges that they falsified tickets.

The case raises questions about the statistics used to justify the strategy.

Detectives began an investigation when tickets were found in a service shredder box. The tickets in the books that should have to be given to the person being ticketed were still attached.

The tickets were logged with the courts and counted as police statistics, but were never handed out. Seven officers from the ACTION team were arrested in June of 2015 after an investigation found discrepancies involving 32 tickets. They were suspended without pay.

Five are still facing criminal charges and are expected in court Monday. The other two officers have since returned to work.

Former Hamilton Police Chief Glenn De Caire said the ACTION strategy was "very effective" in Hamilton at a June 2015 press conference confirming 5 officers had been charged in a ticket scandal. (Dave Ritchie/CBC)
All of those tickets have since been withdrawn, De Caire said last June. The incident didn't call the ACTION strategy into question for him. Those still in charge declined to comment in light of the ongoing court proceedings.

But if the case does reveal a connection between the faked tickets and numerical pressure?

"It's going to bring the whole strategy — not into question, but it's going to trigger a review. Or it should," said Hamilton Police Association president Clint Twolan.

Goals for numbers of tickets

The team does set numerical goals for its work. It aimed to issue 4,000 tickets in 2014, and surpassed that, according to the most recently published year-end report.

Balinson and Worster, overseeing ACTION, rejected the idea that the teams are driven by quotas.

"I wouldn't identify it as a pressure," Worster said. "Obviously the police officers, they have a duty to enforce the laws. But there's also a level of discretion there as well. We look at a more holistic approach here and a larger approach. And it's not ticket-driven, if that's what you're getting at."

I don't mind the allocation of the resources, I just don't want that the purpose is to 'clean up a problem,' rather than it being to support the evolution of a great city.- Paddy Bowen, executive director, Mission Services

Coun. Matthew Green argues the bottom line should shift.

"My hope is that it would evolve into a community-based policing model that works primarily to build relationships in the community, and is not driven by some of the other metrics that might have in the past indicated their success or failure," Green said.

The case is not the only shadow over the stats used to tout the team's impact.

A presentation last July revealed that the numbers the service had published in previous years about its "street checks" counted when the same person was stopped on the street by more than one ACTION officer at the same time. That means one "check" was  counted twice.

The service had published in reports to its oversight board that the ACTION team had done 18,569 between 2010 and mid-2014. But when the duplicates were removed for the presentation last July, the service reported doing only 9,005 street checks between 2010 and 2014 -- less than half.

Martin, from Hamilton Police, said the service has "resolved" those duplicates for the street checks category. She did not say whether other statistics reported by the ACTION team were reviewed for duplicates.

Monday: ACTION's connection to carding and its evolving approach to policing vulnerable people in the core.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett


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