Bringing urban skills to rural policing
By Carla Garrett
By Carla Garrett
Tucked away in rural southwestern Ontario is a small urban centre built primarily on the now dying tobacco industry.
However, the Town of Tillsonburg and all its charm continues to prosper, bringing families and seniors into the community to live and work.
But this growing town of about 15,000 comes with its own unique challenges as it draws in a larger population during the day from surrounding rural communities. Tillsonburg also swells during the summer months as hired help from nearby farms congregate in the urban setting.
“The transient nature of people introduces a greater responsibility for the town, including policing,” says Tillsonburg Mayor Stephen Molnar. “We service a population of 80,000 — far more than our tax base of 15,000.”
Despite a fluctuating population, there has been a downward trend in overall crime since the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) started patrolling the streets of Tillsonburg.
“Even though the population is growing, violent crimes are not spiking,” says the town’s detachment commander OPP Insp. Jack Goodlett. “And there are no alarming trends of things increasing.”
Since the fall of 2000, the men and women in gold and blue have provided policing under a five-year, renewable contract with the town.
Goodlett says the OPP have grown as an organization as a result of contract policing.
“We have learned the value of urban policing and have been able to take the lessons we have learned and apply it to policing in general to come out with a better product,” he says. “I believe we have all become better police officers as a result of it.”
Most recently, Tillsonburg has attracted two new regional OPP developments. “We are very proud to welcome a regional forensics lab and now the announcement of an OPP training facility,” says Molnar. “These opportunities became available because of the positive working relationship between the town and OPP.”
He adds they look forward to fostering that relationship and enhancing the quality of service in the future.
Coming together as one
It was during the reign of former premier Mike Harris, whose government focused on cutting costs, that Tillsonburg and other municipal police services started looking at other policing options. Legislation was also changing the way police services were to operate, which could potentially prove quite costly for municipal forces. Therefore, in 1998, the Town of Tillsonburg started investigating a contract with the Ontario Provincial Police.
Around the same time, four other communities in Oxford County were attempting to form a new policing partnership that was later known as Oxford Community Police Service. Several informational sessions with stakeholders, the police services board and town council were held leading to the decision to amalgamate Tillsonburg Police Service into the Oxford OPP.
At that time, the Woodstock OPP detachment closed its office and moved about 37 kilometres south, to Tillsonburg.
“The OPP brought great value to our community,” says Molnar. “Residents and the town are extremely well serviced by the partnership we entered into with an OPP contract.”
Prior to the amalgamation, the Tillsonburg Police Service was comprised of a chief, a deputy chief, four sergeants, 17 constables, two clerical and one civilian court officer. The only difference with the Tillsonburg OPP contract was that it replaced the “chief” with an inspector and had two sergeants.
It wasn’t until 2006 that three additional constables were added to the contract, bringing the total complement to 20.
The detachment members were assigned to the former Tillsonburg Police Service building at 90 Concession Street — a new modern station and one of the nicest offices in the OPP, says Goodlett.
“It’s still one of the best in the province,” says the inspector, who has a bright corner office in the building.
The Tillsonburg office, which is the administration centre for the Oxford detachment, is nestled between the fire station and Oxford County EMS base, which are central to the town.
Three years after Tillsonburg joined the provincial force, the Town of Ingersoll — also in the County of Oxford — opted to dissolve its municipal force and sign a contract with the OPP.
“The OPP has provided many services to the town that would have been much more costly if we had to provide these services through a municipal force,” says Ingersoll Mayor Paul Holbrough. “Examples of these services are the canine unit and Tactics and Rescue Unit (TRU) teams.”
There, the OPP assumed another modern police station at 110 Mutual Street, to be used as a satellite office for Oxford OPP.
The Oxford County detachment currently includes the municipalities of Tillsonburg, Ingersoll, South-West Oxford and Zorra, and is poised to expand this summer with the addition of Norwich, Blandford-Blenheim and East Zorra-Tavistock townships.
The detachment will then employ about 100 officers, up from 69. Presently, about 40 to 45 people work out of the 85,000-square-foot building in Ingersoll, as officers from Zorra and the OPP Highway Safety Division report there.
Before the amalgamation, Ingersoll Police Service was made up of one chief, three sergeants and 13 constables. The contracted service from the OPP on Feb. 13, 2003 was one inspector, three sergeants and 15 constables. In 2006, a high school resource officer was added, bringing the total constables to 16. The OPP contract was renewed last year in Ingersoll.
“The Town of Ingersoll has a range of populations that are well served by the community-based policing model of the OPP,” says Holbrough. “Our youth resource officer works in the local high school and youth centre and has built a positive relationship with our youth.”
Holbrough pointed out that as a result, there has been a reduction in calls historically associated with youth. Since 2006, reported incidents of mischief in Ingersoll have dropped to 130 from 187, while thefts under $5,000 shrunk to 144 from 180.
There were also 32 fewer break and enters in 2008 than 2007.
“As you total the numbers, there is a reduction,” says Goodlett, adding as long as the totals go down “we are making a difference.”
It’s a similar story in Tillsonburg, where the annual calls for service have also declined.
“Stats show Tillsonburg is a safe community,” says the mayor.
Over an 11-year period, break and enters in Tillsonburg dropped to 77 from 157 in 1996. Traffic collisions have also flat lined over the past few years, coming down from about 300 in 1996 to 193 in 2008.
The crime rate decreased in both communities from 2006 to 2007, with an overall clearance rate of about 84 per cent for all calls.
Goodlett says while it’s great to catch the bad guys, reducing and preventing crime is more important.
And he adds, “It’s not a cookie-cutter solution for each community. Different problems are present in different places.”
Goodlett says they tackle the communities’ individual needs through community-driven policing and by incorporating specialized programs and public relations tools, such as Oxford the dog.
Last year there were just over 5,500 reported offences in Tillsonburg and about 4,200 in Ingersoll. Goodlett says the OPP’s continued success in these two communities rests largely on the co-operative effort of everyone involved.
“It’s a team effort, not an individual,” he says, adding at the end of the day all police officers are trained at the Ontario Police College. And while the coming together of three police services was not without growing pains, Goodlett says it has created something “better” collectively.
“Everyone learns from each other in an amalgamation,” adds Goodlett.
The face of Oxford OPP
Some of those who once worked for the municipal force have joined the OPP, bringing continuity to the Town of Tillsonburg — something the mayor says is important to community policing.
“We also find officers are very active in the community and contributing to the town far beyond their time in uniform,” says Molnar. “We are very proud of that.”
One of the familiar faces in the community is the detachment commander himself. Goodlett is a Tillsonburg resident with strong ties to the community, having had children who attended the local schools. But Goodlett says he continues to learn more about the areas his detachment services.
“I like to visit other areas and meet people outside of the office,” he says. And although he is shared amongst four Oxford municipalities, his motto is “I’ll be there.”
The 55-year-old inspector has been in policing for almost 35 years, since joining the OPP in 1974. He has worked in several communities across the province, including Toronto, Simcoe and a remote village near Thunder Bay.
“I remember my first day on the job as if it were yesterday,” he says, adding he is not ready to go yet. “I am having too much fun.”
He says the day he doesn’t have fun, is the day he will sign his resignation.
However, it’s been a difficult season for Goodlett and the entire OPP family after the death of a beloved Ingersoll constable and her family. In December, the force lost long-time community services officer Const. Laurie Hawkins — a pillar of the community who worked passionately with youth and seniors there.
Hawkins and her family died after an accidental carbon monoxide leak in their home. “We have had a lot of challenges over the years…but the officers live through those things,” says Goodlett. “It makes you stronger once you work through those things.”
STATS N FACTS
POP TO COP 1:719
CIV MEMBERS 3
COST PER CAPITA $144
CLEARANCE RATE 41 (criminal offences)
CRIME RATE CHANGE -15
POP TO COP 1:636
CIV MEMBERS 2
COST PER CAPITA $171
CLEARANCE RATE 33 (criminal offences)
CRIME RATE CHANGE -11
SOURCE: Police Resources in Canada – 2008