Kwanlin Dün safety officer program is working, First Nation says

Sometimes the new Kwanlin Dün community safety officers simply help people get home safe, other times they try to keep them out of trouble. And so far, they seem to be making a difference.

'We are being really nosy, but at the same time we are kind of detouring people from doing illegal activities'

Kwanlin Dün community safety officer Elias Park gets ready to begin another day patrolling the streets of Whitehorse's McIntyre subdivision. Park and two other safety officers were hired earlier this year as part of a pilot program to address safety concerns in the neighbourhood. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

It's a cold morning in Whitehorse's McIntyre subdivision. Kwanlin Dün safety officers begin the day with a morning meeting in the kitchen at their office, a recently renovated house in the area.

The ice and snow on their vehicle windows has been scraped off. Two of the safety officers are quickly briefed and head out to patrol the streets of the community.

With winter setting in, the streets are a little quieter.

"The activity outdoors is kind of slowing down, but our activity is kind of picking up since we are trying to be more proactive in the community — to make sure everybody is safe and at home," said Elias Park, the team leader of the program.

"Early hours in the morning, occasionally you get people walking around that don't know where they want to go, or have a place to stay."

'Our activity is kind of picking up since we are trying to be more proactive in the community — to make sure everybody is safe and at home,' said Park (right), seen here with lands steward Tyler O'Brien. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

The Kwanlin Dün First Nation launched its new Community Safety Program earlier this year, with Park and Jesse Ryder hired as community safety officers, and Tyler O'Brien hired as a lands steward. 

The officers are meant to be a first point of contact for Kwanlin Dün citizens living in the McIntyre subdivision. The idea was to have officers patrol the streets and, on occasion, work with the RCMP, Whitehorse bylaw officers, or Yukon conservation officers (for example, if there are wildlife concerns, such as roaming wolves or bears).

Park says it's about making sure people feel safe in their community. 

Sometimes, that means dealing with people who have had too much to drink. Sometimes the officers simply help those people get home. Other times, the focus is on keeping them out of trouble.

'The first person that is going to talk to you'

The job often requires some negotiating skills.

"We show up at a party, maybe it's a noise complaint. I guess that's usually what it starts out as. Most of the time people are compliant," Park said.

"For the times that they are not, we remind them that we are the first person that is going to talk to you, so this is essentially your warning." 

Park says the patrols serve another purpose — they let drug dealers in the community know they're being watched.

The officers' patrol vehicles are designed to be highly visible in the community. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

"Suspicious activity — you know, unusual persons at somebody's address, or a car parked out that shouldn't be or we haven't seen before — we respond to those, and just see what those people are doing at that address," he said.

"In a way, we are being really nosy, but at the same time we are kind of detouring people from doing illegal activities."

Program is working, says coordinator

The coordinator of the safety officer program says the patrols seem to be working. She says people in the community are feeling safer.

"We find that, [from] talking to the elders, talking to the youth, talking to the citizens of the community. You know, they are just so happy about having the community safety officers," said Gina Nagano.

Residents 'feel very safe and grounded, you know, knowing that [officers] are out there patrolling all hours of the evening,' said Gina Nagano, coordinator of the safety officer program. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

"They feel very safe and grounded, you know, knowing that they're out there patrolling all hours of the evening."

The program is a three-year pilot project and part of a larger Community Safety Initiative that the First Nation developed in 2015. It's been implemented in stages. The Yukon government contributed $1.4 million over three years to the program.

Nagano says it's resulted in a significant drop in the number of police calls to the community. Many of those calls in the past had to do with issues related to alcohol and substance abuse. 

But Nagano says the number of calls has dropped by about 38 per cent since 2015, according to statistics collected by the First Nation.

Nagano says she's never seen such a dramatic change.

"21 years of policing, 31 years in the justice system, and I have never seen a drop in statistical police calls to the community by 40 per cent," she said.

Nagano would like to see similar programs in other Yukon communities, and elsewhere in Canada.

"One of the things that is so different about this program is it is built from the community. It's built from the citizens, it's built from the ground up," Nagano said.

For Park, it hasn't always been easy patrolling the community and being "nosy," but he's happy to have a positive impact.

"You know, you deal with a lot of things that may not be the nicest things to deal, with on a daily basis," he said.

"But it's the times that you do actually make a difference for somebody, and you are helping them out, that makes it all worth it. For sure." 

The First Nation says the number of police calls to the McIntyre subdivision has dropped significantly. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)