Saskatoon

Sask. professor asks whether 'alternative response officers' are right approach to address policing concerns

A University of Saskatchewan sociology professor wonders whether a Saskatoon police pilot project that uses a new form of policing is the right solution.

Pilot project consist of 4 officers who can offer support through outreach and referrals, won't carry guns

The pilot program consists of four 'alternative response officers' who will field calls involving vulnerable people and offer support through outreach and referrals. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

A University of Saskatchewan sociology professor wonders whether a Saskatoon Police Service pilot project that uses a new form of policing is the right solution to handling calls involving vulnerable people.

"Police really should be commended for being open to change," Scott Thompson told Saskatoon Morning's Leisha Grebinski. "But … as a community, we want to make sure that the change that's being made is the best change that's possible."

The pilot program, announced last week, involves four "alternative response officers" who will field calls involving vulnerable people and offer support through outreach and referrals.

The officers will not carry guns.

Thompson, who specializes in policing, said protests over the last year following high-profile incidents involving police pushed for greater police accountability, but also a greater community voice in the process of policing. 

"This change kind of goes against one of the major points that people were protesting and putting forward this summer, and that was part of the defund the police movement," Thompson said.

"'Defund' is kind of poorly named in that it sounds like we're saying you want to remove the funding of the police service and underfund it. And that's not what it's about at all. The defund movement is about this idea that we're already asking police to do too much within our community."

Thompson said we should be looking for alternatives outside the police service to find better solutions.

If this pilot project is to succeed, he said police will need to alter the way they respond to these calls for help.

"Are they just doing the same policing practices that people feel are discriminatory and leading to inequality? Things like carding in our community? Or is it going to be a completely different form of policing?"

Thompson said it is important for the community to be able to measure whether this new unit achieves the goals set out for it.

"How does the community tell the police what it is that they want and if these officers are being successful on the ground?"

Thompson said the fact these officers will not carry guns is significant, but that can't be the only change.

Diverting vulnerable people away from the justice system and into other types of social programs could even prove to be cost effective.

"The criminal justice system is extremely costly," he said. "So when we look at alternatives, the bar is fairly low as far as how much we can spend on it and still do well."

For example, he said taking someone into custody and putting them on trial can can cost between $2,000 and $44,000 for the government.

"And we know that for everyone that goes into remand, the average cost is about $18,000," he said, adding the annual cost to keep an adult in custody is about $81,000.

"This is a huge amount of spending to use a criminal justice response."

With files from Saskatoon Morning

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