Toronto police to expand neighbourhood officer program amid spate of shootings

The Canadian Press
October 01, 2018
By The Canadian Press
Toronto’s police service is set to expand an existing neighbourhood officer program in an effort to “build trust and reduce crime,” but critics say it’s unlikely to do either.

Deputy Chief Peter Yuen, who is in charge of the police force’s communities and neighbourhoods command, said the expansion will roll out in phases over the course of a year and will more than double the number of community officers on city streets.

“We want to deliver community-centred policing. We want to get back to connecting with the neighbourhoods,” said Yuen.

Yuen said in total, about 120 officers will be deployed to 27 neighbourhoods. The first phase of deployments begins on Monday, when 40 officers will be placed in eight neighbourhoods across the city.

He said more officers will continue to be stationed in other Toronto neighbourhoods through October 2019. Yuen said the expansion would bring the total number of neighbourhood officers to about 220 situated in a total of 60 neighbourhoods. He said it’s a four-year assignment for the officers, which he said will give them time to build relationships with the public.

The expansion boosts an existing program that has been running since 2013 and currently has 96 officers in 33 neighbourhoods.

A report that was presented at a Toronto police board meeting on Friday said the early focus of the program was “to increase police presence and address community problems ... within particular neighbourhoods and improve relationships between community members and the police.

The report said that through the program, officers conduct regular patrols of the community and engage in “intelligence-gathering.” The report also said the program’s expansion will cost about $16 million each year.

Yuen said it will continue to have the same goals, but that officers will be more “accessible” to the community.

“Neighbourhood officers will have the training and the tools to go and assist neighbourhoods,” he said. “Neighbourhood officers will be available to the public 24-7.”

So far this year, Toronto has seen 40 fatal shootings, compared to 29 fatal shootings in all of 2017, according to Toronto police crime statistics. There were also 29 fatal shootings in 2016 and 17 in 2015, the data shows.

Louis March, founder of the Toronto-based Zero Gun Violence Movement, said the increased police presence could be “intimidating.”

He said some officers can come off as “aggressive” when they try to speak to community members about gun violence in order to get information on suspects.

“A lot of officers are doing good work,” said March. “But some officers can be aggressive. There’s a lack of empathy, concern, a lack of understanding.”

March said policing isn’t a solution to reducing violence, and that there should be more emphasis on developing neighbourhoods economically, by creating job opportunities and improving public programming.

“It’s about investing and developing these communities,” he said.

Yuen said the program expansion isn’t a response to the jump in gun violence in the city, but that it will address guns and gangs.

“We’re not singularly looking through a crime lens,” said Yuen. “We are more than just crime fighters.... If we just look through that single lens then we lose the focus of the neighbourhood officers.”

Yuen said the officers will also be “engaging” with the communities to identify members of the public who suffer from mental illnesses.

“They will be able to identify these people and they will be able to get those people the required assistance they need,” he said.

Yuen said members of the community in the 27 newly selected neighbourhoods were consulted over the summer about the program, and he believes they responded positively to the expansion. He said this included consultations with local politicians, business improvement agencies, churches and other organizations, although he declined to name which ones specifically.

Neighbourhoods where officers will be stationed were chosen based on statistics that looked at a range of factors including crime index, level of unemployment, level of income, family status, level of education, and “fear of violence,” according to the police report.

“This is not a police-driven program. This program is a collaborative approach,” said Yuen.

Zya Brown, director of Think 2wice, which provides activities and programming for youth and those involved in the legal system, said she doesn’t believe the officer program will build trust. She said police can bring a level of fear as they are in a position of power and authority, and can make members of the public feel like they are criminals.

“This is also going to enforce stereotypes,” she said. “Because people in these neighbourhoods are black and brown.”

She said she is worried the program will be another version of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy, which was criticized for disproportionately targeting people of colour. That program saw more police deployed to neighbourhoods that saw crime increases the year before, during the city’s so-called “Summer of the Gun.”

- Alanna Rizza

News from © Associated  Press Enterprises Inc., 2018

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