Calgary police beat unit

Nancy Scott
August 01, 2009
By Nancy Scott
The barometer for a city’s safety is the public’s perception of how safe they are in its downtown core. For Calgary’s more than one million residents, this perception was the reality confronted by Rick Hanson upon his appointment as police chief in October 2007.

The barometer for a city’s safety is the public’s perception of how safe they are in its downtown core. For Calgary’s more than one million residents, this perception was the reality confronted by Rick Hanson upon his appointment as police chief in October 2007.

Hanson has been transparently candid in admitting that the Calgary Police Service had lost the downtown core to increasing gang violence, street disturbances, highly visible drug trafficking, a growing homeless population and rising crime rates. Returning after an 18 month absence, he described a core plagued by crime and social disorder characterized by aggressive panhandling, mentally ill and drugaddicted street people loitering and sleeping in public areas, mischief to property, anti-social and criminal activity on public transit, street fights and gang violence in the entertainment districts. These problems, compounded by inadequate policing resources and a litany of other policing issues, contributed to the public’s general perception and growing fear that police did not control the city.

Calgary’s city centre area makes up about six square kilometres of its 850 square kilometre area. There were more than 24,000 public-generated, officer-dispatched calls to the core in 2008 and 43 per cent were for social disorder-related complaints. These incidents can negatively impact citizens’ quality of life and perception of safety, particularly in public places. Primarily, these calls were for panhandlers or other loiterers, suspicious or intoxicated persons, disturbances or drug activity.

It’s imperative that police display a presence to demonstrate their strong commitment to creating a safe downtown, particularly for the more than 180,000 people living and working there.

“People in Calgary’s belt line,” Hanson states, “were desperate for the style of community policing where they worked together with police to solve issues of concern to them.”

There was no one simple course of action or knee-jerk approach to unravel the complex constellation of factors that led to the city’s current crisis. On a strategic and tactical level, the situation demanded a multi-faceted plan integrating thoughtful, focused deployment. Also crucial was co-operation and support from the municipal, provincial and federal governments to grant funds for more resources and long-term alternatives to “revolving-door” justice that saw offenders back out on the street in a matter of hours.

As an essential component of this plan to “take back the core,” Hanson envisioned the inception of a permanent downtown beat unit he described as “a community-based policing model of old-style foot patrol combined with strategic deployment.”

Not surprisingly, the beat initiative presented a range of logistical hurdles, such as the need for additional clothing and equipment, office space and the realignment of radio dispatch channels in the downtown district.

However, finding the actual human resources to deploy remained the most significant challenge in a city which has one of the largest geographical areas, yet one of the worst policeto- population, or “pop-to-cop” ratios, of any major Canadian city.

One initial concern was that the new beat unit would be comprised of very junior officers with little policing experience. That was countered by Deputy Chief Al Redford, who overcame the logistical challenge through an internal promotional campaign that drew members from within the service. He also deployed a pool of experienced officers from the United Kingdom who had recently completed recruit classes.

Ultimately, the unit was realized as a balanced composition of officers with varying levels of policing experience. Each team included a mix of current patrol officers, experienced UK officers, members from the original beat unit (created in 2006) and newly-graduated recruits. Supervisors were also thoughtfully selected.

The unit’s 62 uniformed officers hit the street on May 27, 2009, with very clear marching orders: to act as a highly visible presence in the downtown core, deploy to targeted areas to interdict crime and social disorder and improve the comfort and safety of all people. The four 15 officer teams are the linchpins at the aggressive enforcement end of a strategy Hanson identified as “the most important uniformed initiative of the Calgary Police Service.”

Redford describes the new unit as a sort of “back to the future” kind of policing. “This is old-style foot patrol, but in a new way. We have always had a community-based policing philosophy, but this is a return to face-to-face connections and geographical ownership of problems and patrol knowing the people and the problems of an area.”

In other words, the objective wasn’t to simply flood the downtown area with uniformed police – the “a cop on every corner” strategy – but rather a focused, sophisticated and strategic approach to directed patrol with the mandate of proactive, intelligence-based policing. The deployment model was developed with these objectives at the forefront.

Beat teams are on the street from 6 am to 4 am every day and focus on changing “hotspots” largely identified by unit members. Additionally, each team assumes ownership of a geographical area within the city centre, such as the 7th Avenue transit corridor, the East Village, known for its high transient population and open-air drug trade, Chinatown or the 17th Avenue business corridor.

During the day and afternoon, the focus is on keeping the downtown area safe for working Calgarians, through what Hanson identifies as “aggressive policing,” with unrelenting targeting and enforcement of street disturbances, panhandling, public intoxication and property crimes.

By night, the focus shifts to the bars and nightclubs of the entertainment district, streetlevel drug activity and the associated fighting and violence. Here, beat officers are part of a coordinated effort that includes the Violent Crimes Suppression Team (VCST) and BarWatch, to reduce crime by bringing back legitimate social activity and sending a loud and clear message that this criminal element is not welcome and will not be tolerated.

Unit members will also be deployed to social events such as concerts and theatre or visits from political figures and foreign dignitaries. The objective is simple: for citizens to feel safe when attending venues and not having to worry about a gauntlet of panhandlers or feel intimidated while walking alone to parking lots or public transit. One of the many benefits, notes team leader Sgt. Jason Walker, supervisor of the former beat unit, is “presence-based policing that allows for the development and strengthening of effective community partnerships” with the focus of proactive beat policing.

Once officers have cleared their points or “hotspots,” Walker says, they self-deploy to areas of merit and individual interest. They do a lot of on-view drug enforcement work and are key players in major investigations, vice and gang operations. They also focus on intelligenceled policing and are given time to develop and handle sources and informants.

Walker echoes Hanson’s philosophy that police work relies upon building relationships within the community. He tells of beat unit officers garnering trust through daily, face-to-face interactions with local merchants, residents, downtown workers, the homeless – even known criminals – and investing time in forging strong relationships. These investments have shown profit in critical intelligence that has contributed to solving several homicides and major crimes.

In addition, because it is a “specialty unit,” officers have the flexibility, availability and fluidity to respond immediately to information and very quickly mobilize an operation that doesn’t require a full-blown operational plan. Schedules can be easily adjusted to allow members to change from uniforms to plainclothes and raid jackets and quickly assemble a four-to six-member team that can act upon important, real-time information, or respond to dynamic situations to apply immediate action to a developing trend or incident in progress.

Still, officers who walk the beat face a variety of challenges. Although all unit members completed a comprehensive 40-hour training week prior to deployment, they must possess expert knowledge of powers and authorities. Responding to immediate, on-view situations does not afford the same luxury of time to think and react as call-driven policing may offer. There can be precious little room for the uncertainty of inexperience and public perception, scrutiny and criticism are always a consideration. Very simply, foot patrol officers have more direct, day-to-day contacts with the public than most colleagues working regular patrol, and this can make them more vulnerable to citizen complaints.

Walker knows firsthand that his officers walk a fine line when a citizen sees only the final moments of an interaction with an aggressive or combative offender. He has had to answer the public outcry that condemns police for being little more than a band of pirates who bully the homeless. Beat unit officers must also strike a balance between combating blatant drug activity one moment and contending with a jaywalking businessman in a three-piece suit the next who defies them to “go and arrest the real criminals.”

Beat unit officers are policing a very different city than the Calgary of even 10 years ago. “Communication skills for officers are now more important than ever,” notes Walker. “Not only are they interacting with people from all walks of life, but the situations that they face often require an enhanced level of communication with all parties involved.”

Another change, improved technology, has proven to be a double-edged sword, Walker acknowledges. It has made possible valuable surveillance cameras on the streets, but also cell phones that can record officers’ words and actions. These can then be uploaded as sound bites to the Internet or provided to the media to be broadcast, out of context, on the six o’clock news.

The challenges for Cst. Rich Wall, an experienced UK officer who has walked the downtown beat for two years, include staying motivated, battling negative perceptions of the unit held by some colleagues and combating fatigue. There’s also the very real hardship presented by Calgary’s inclement weather – he recalls a January night when the temperature dropped to -48. Nonetheless, “this is absolutely the best unit in the city,” he declares, adding that the camaraderie, freedom and diverse policing opportunities far outweigh any adversity.

The new unit is no one-trick pony in the plan to secure the city centre, emphasizes Redford, noting police cannot rely upon only one approach to tackle the current crisis in the core. “If the only tool you have is a hammer,” he quips, “then every problem looks like a nail.” Consequently, the initiative to take back the downtown began with “Operation Endeavour” and street-level undercover cops targeting drug trafficking, detaining offenders in custody and releasing them with conditions, including restricting them to areas outside the core. This put teeth into what beat unit officers can do when these conditions are breached to keep certain groups from returning to and staying in the downtown area.

Fear of crime can have as great an impact as crime itself – and with any form of interdiction, citizens have a very real, although mistaken concern, that all the criminal activity will simply be displaced to adjacent areas; perhaps their own neighbourhoods. As a result, developing a plan to address the displacement – both real and perceived – of crime and social disorder as a result of aggressive enforcement was a critical part of the multi-phased strategy to clean up Calgary’s core.

Since isolating the impact of displacement is impossible, the CPS will employ a more valuable strategy that includes taking a baseline analysis of “hotspots,” using intelligence-led policing, to actively monitor and detect evidence of displacement and emerging trends. It will respond proactively to emerging issues and provide ongoing community engagement and education. Still, displacement “in and of itself” is not a negative effect, insists Supt. Trevor Daroux, who maintains that, with any targeted activity undertaken by police, “there is always the overall result of a net reduction in crime.”

Calgary’s beat unit is not a temporary expedient, Daroux emphasizes, contrasting the initiative to other operations where police target a specific problem, only to lose that ground when forced to move on to other projects due to lack of long-term resources. The unit is a permanent fixture in Hanson’s mission to put substance behind the promise; his goal is for police to not only take back Calgary’s downtown core, but to keep it.

The multi-phased plan also includes a coordinated effort from the community, services, all levels of government and partnerships with social agencies such as the Homeless Foundation. Treatment links to outreach agencies such as Pathways to Housing must also be made to more strategically deal with factors that lead to homelessness, such as drug and alcohol addiction or mental illness. A final component looks to a modified jail system that will rehabilitate addicts, resulting in more long-term solutions to the current “revolving door” practice of processing people through either the health or justice system.

“We are making a statement that the city is ours – we own it and we own the street,” Hanson told unit officers on their inaugural day. The atmosphere was distinctly optimistic as they assembled on the steps of city hall in front of the Police Memorial for the official launch, attended by Premier Ed Stelmach and Mayor Dave Bronconnier.

Still, Hanson is characteristically forthright in his assertion that the success of the overall initiative hangs in the balance of achieving solidarity with a judicial system that can no longer afford to deem certain offences “insignificant” or “minor.” He says it’s imperative for all agencies to work together with police to achieve the goal of creating a safer community.

“Beat and foot patrols, bike units, VCST,” Hanson states, “no matter how many cops are put down there – if the courts and prosecutors don’t support our efforts to make streets safer, it is inevitably destined to failure because police are only part of the justice system.”

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