Community safety officers a model for dealing with RCMP shortage in northern Manitoba
Thompson, Man. mayor says city determined to keep program running as funding agreement ends
Community safety officer Tristan Hubbard swings open his car door and approaches a group of four intoxicated people outside a hotel in Thompson, Man. He spotted them with an open bottle of liquor and demands they turn it over.
"I want the bottle. You guys you know this is illegal. You can't drink in public. These guys could lose their licence. It's a large fine," Hubbard explains to the group.
"They know they're in the wrong. They're not usually too angry about it but if I get the same group or same guy and he's buying wine 4 or 5 times and I pour on him over and over throughout the day. He will lose his patience, but they understand for the most part that they're not supposed to be doing that," said Hubbard.
The city of approximately 13,000 services many outlying communities in the north and while that boosts the local economy, it also adds to its crime and the social issues it has to deal with. Thompson is often near the top of Statistics Canada's crime severity index and similar to many rural communities, the 38-member RCMP detachment have heavy caseloads and currently have four members on maternity or paternity leave.
To help support the RCMP and have more of a presence dealing with social issues in their downtown core, the city partnered with the province in 2015 to launch a two-year pilot project which amended existing legislation to give community safety officers peace officer status and the authority under the Intoxicated Persons Detention Act to deal with concerns that the RCMP would otherwise deal with.
"We assist the RCMP a lot, take a lot of pressure off them. We do have a bit of a high crime rate and they're always go-go-go, and those officers work so hard and they're busy and sometimes they don't have the time to be downtown dealing with open liquor or public intoxication type stuff and they need to be prioritizing on actual criminal offences. We allow them to focus on that," said Koopman.
On top of patrolling the downtown core, the CSOs also take on some calls for patients with mental health issues. If police officers aren't needed the CSOs can transport and wait with patients in hospital, which the RCMP estimates saves their members 1,600 hours a year.
"Which equates to a fair amount of time our members would be tied up, dealing with 20 minutes here, 20 minutes there. By the time you go and pick up a prisoner, lodge them in the cell block, do up some notes up, get back out there in the street. It is a large benefit to have the CSO program working with our members and amongst our members in Thompson," said Lewis.
CSO Neal Flett, who was born and raised in Gillam, Man. and his lived his entire life in northern Manitoba, says having extra eyes in the community helps keep people safe.
"By being proactive as well — deterring the level of alcohol consumed sometimes, it could stop them from preventing a further crime," said Flett.
Flett grew up listening to his grandparents speak Cree, and while he's not fluent he tries to use the language whenever he can when interacting with the public. He said using traditional languages can help officers connect with people in the core.
"It's definitely an effective tool, because even though we have all these tools on our belt, your best tool is your mouth. You can't fight fire with fire, you have to know how to talk to people, to be human."
When it was first launched as a two-year partnership with the province, the Manitoba government funded 50 percent of the program. That agreement expired in May and the city has been funding the province's portion since. Thompson council has agreed to continue funding the program at its current capacity until Dec. 31 of this year. If no further funding comes in from other levels of government, the program could be facing cuts.
Thompson Mayor Dennis Fenske said the CSOs play a vital role in the community, getting people the help and services they need and that the issues they deal with can't be policed out of the community. Fenske said discussions with the province are ongoing and if the funding isn't restored the city will have to find a way to keep the program.
Thompson got input for their program from a community safety officer program that was implemented in North Battleford, Sask. in the summer of 2014. The province of Saskatchewan viewed that program as a success and started expanding it in December of the same year. There are now 27 CSOs working in more than a dozen communities throughout Saskatchewan.
On a chilly afternoon, Flett, Koopman and Hubbard pull into a gas station parking lot in Thompson to a large group of people arguing with each other. When the officers exit the vehicle they get an early sense that talking isn't going to de-escalate the situation. When one man pushes another, the CSOs place him under arrest for assault and ask everyone else to keep moving.
Hubbard, originally from Yarmouth, N.S., is eyeing a career with the RCMP and moved to Thompson just to become a CSO. He said he believes the past few years as a CSO have given him invaluable experience.
"I strongly believe you learn by doing it, until you put yourself in that situation you really don't know how you'll react. Things can go wrong in a second and it does happen with the CSOs more often than people think. It is a dangerous job, you need to be able to think and adapt to your specific situation," said Hubbard.