N.W.T's 1st community safety officer pilot program coming to Fort Liard
Officers will respond to non-criminal safety concerns, won’t carry weapons or enforce laws
A progressive, healthy and safe community.
This vision for the hamlet of Fort Liard, N.W.T., could be one step closer to being achieved through the implementation of the territory's first Community Safety Officer Pilot Program.
The pilot program will eventually see three community safety officers respond to non-criminal safety concerns in the hamlet. Unlike the RCMP, the community safety officers will carry no weapons and go through specialized training.
They will have no authority to enforce laws, but will be "strong community advocates for Fort Liard as they know the hamlet, the people and the culture best," according to Minister of Justice R.J. Simpson in a statement.
Fort Liard, population 500, was chosen among many N.W.T. communities based on community need and their capacity to successfully deliver the program.
The three-year project is funded by the N.W.T. government — $303,000 annually — which also developed the basic framework of the program. It is expected to launch sometime this year or next.
'Problem solvers' for Fort Liard
Dean Riou, interim director of community justice and policing with the territorial government, says his vision is that the safety officers will be seen as helpers, leaders and problem solvers in the community.
"The CSOs have zero enforcement powers and that was really important to us when we were designing the program because as soon as somebody has a power of arrest or the power to levy a fine … against the person, it creates a certain power dynamic," said Riou.
According to Riou, over 40 per cent of calls to police in the N.W.T. are for what he refers to as social disorder calls — when someone is "basically being a nuisance or requires assistance due to their intoxication, but otherwise hasn't committed a crime."
The assertion is supported by evidence from Statistics Canada, which found last year that mischief and disturbing the peace make up a large part of the high crime rates that plague Canada's small, remote, majority-Indigenous communities.
In these cases, the community safety officers can help deal with the situation.
Regular check-ins on elders
John McKee, senior administrative officer for Fort Liard, says this program is an opportunity to achieve better communication between residents, safety officers and the RCMP.
"If people need information, they can have somebody to talk to, to help them out," said McKee, adding that if needed, "the safety officers can communicate with the RCMP."
This will especially help elders in the community.
"We're dealing with elders having issues at home — feeling unsafe in the home," said McKee. "Our staff can just, you know, go meet with them, check on them on a regular basis, make sure they're safe and there are no issues."
They can also provide safe rides, shovel sidewalks after a snowstorm and chop wood for elders, among other things, said Riou.
The safety officers will have uniforms and their own identifiable car.
Inspired by Kwanlin Dün First Nation
Fort Liard's Community Safety Officer Pilot Program is modelled after a similar program in Kwanlin Dün in Yukon, said Riou, launched in 2017 after a young girl was killed in the community.
"They were quite helpful with us in identifying some of the hurdles and opportunities of the program," said Riou.
The Yukon program has seen great success, with a decrease in sexual assaults, thefts, criminal harassment and impaired driving cases, according to Chief Doris Bill of Kwanlin Dün First Nation.
"We have documented evidence where they've saved lives. They've saved women from really unsafe situations," said Bill. "They recognize our CSO officers and they recognize that they are a safe place."
As part of the program, the community has implemented an anonymous tip line, an elders visitation element, a letter of expectations with RCMP and more.
The letter "lays out how we expect police services to be carried out within our community and ensure our cultural needs are reflected in the services the RCMP provides for us," said Bill.
"I can't say all our problems have been solved. We still have some social issues, but I can tell you it's way better than what it was when we first started."