Metro Morning

Beefed-up neighbourhood policing program aims to tackle roots of gun violence

Identifying at-risk youth will be a 'primary' role for officers participating in Toronto's new neighbourhood officer pilot project.

Pilot project, which runs for six months, aims to strengthen relationship between community and police

Deputy Police Chief Peter Yuen hopes the re-booted neighbourhood policing program will build strong connections between officers and community members. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

After months of fatal shootings across the GTA, Toronto police are hoping their new neighbourhood officer pilot project will get at the root causes of the violence.

The pilot project, which launches Monday, will see a beefed-up neighbourhood police presence in eight city neighbourhoods.

Officers will be embedded in areas for four years and seek to gain the trust of the community, Toronto Police Deputy Chief Peter Yuen told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Thursday.

"One of the primary roles for them is to identify at-risk young people," said Yuen.

He spoke with the show just two days after a 15-year-old boy, Mackai Bishop Jackson, was shot to death inside a Regent Park apartment building.

Neighbourhood policing in place since 2013

The Toronto Police Service has had a neighbourhood policing program since 2013, and currently has nearly 100 officers placed in 33 neighbourhoods, including Regent Park.

The re-tooled pilot project, which will run for six months to start, will aim to have a more "visible and consistent" presence and establish a set of standardized approaches for neighbourhood officers, according to a police press release.

A memorial for Mackai Bishop Jackson, who was shot and killed on Tuesday. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

On the ground, Yuen said, that will mean connecting with parents, community organizers and young people themselves.

If an at-risk young person is identified, "neighbourhood officers have a whole host of resources, working with the city, the province, the feds," as well as schools and the justice system, he said.

"It's what I call humanizing the badge," he continued.

Markers of success

When the initial six month pilot is up in March, an academic review will examine how the project played out before the program is rolled out in more neighbourhoods in 2019 and 2020.

Yuen said he'll be watching closely, hoping to see major crime indicators going down.

He said that another sign of success will be more calls to police coming from inside communities.

"When I see the parents… calling our officers, middle of the night at 3 a.m. calling the neighbourhood officer and saying 'my son just came home, and he's got a firearm,'" he said.

The 2013 iteration of neighbourhood policing has already proved successful, Yuen said, with 80 per cent of people from the 33 neighbourhoods who were surveyed saying they welcome the officers' presence.

Summer strategy was effective, says Yuen​

The new neighbourhood officer effort isn't the only new push made by police to curb the recent spate of shootings.

In early July, Police Chief Mark Saunders and Mayor John Tory announced that 200 additional officers would be deployed on overnight shifts for the remainder of the summer.

In June, police seized dozens of firearms from alleged members of a North York street gang in raids that police Chief Mark Saunders said were partially motivated by growing public fears about gun violence. (Paul Smith/CBC)

On Thursday, Yuen said he agreed with Saunders' view that the officer infusion had led to "momentum" in the right direction on gun violence.  

"We have done a lot of great stuff during the summer in seizing many firearms off the street," Yuen said.

He said gun seizures and "connecting with the community" are two of the most critical steps for Toronto to take to get a handle on gun violence. 

With files from Metro Morning