Blue Line

With elders a priority, community policing begins in N.W.T. hamlet

January 20, 2022  By Sarah Sibley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Jan. 19, 2022, Fort Liard, N.W.T. – Two officers leading the Northwest Territories’ first community policing program are completing their training and beginning work.

The program, in the hamlet of Fort Liard, is designed to explore ways of policing communities and preventing crime that don’t involve standard police enforcement. It will run for three years with annual funding of $303,000.

Community safety officers don’t have the authority to enforce laws. They respond to non-criminal safety concerns, patrol the community, build a relationship with RCMP, and work on ways to prevent crime.

“The purpose of the program is to develop community-based responses to public safety and to reduce the number of social and minor disturbance calls for RCMP,” Erin Shea, the N.W.T. government’s director of community justice and policing, said by email.

Fort Liard’s senior administrator, John McKee, said one officer was hired in September and another in November. A third position is being filled.

McKee said the first two officers just finished a two-week intensive training course “to help them deal with situations.” Both were travelling home from that training this week and were unavailable for interview.

Shea said officers take other forms of training similar to that undergone by corrections or municipal enforcement staff, while keeping in mind that community safety officers have no legislative enforcement powers.

Training includes modules on the behaviour of people in crisis, de-escalation techniques, victim-centred and trauma-centred approaches, risk management and decision-making, operational readiness, safety, and communications.

Shea said most calls for the officers’ help involve assistance for Elders and ensuring intoxicated residents arrive home safely. There are also mental health checks, community safety patrols, and educational awareness events.

A similar program at the Kwanlin Dun First Nation in Whitehorse received national recognition as one solution to the legacies of colonialism within modern policing.

Shea said the N.W.T.’s version is part of the territory’s commitment – enshrined in a draft action plan that responds to the calls to justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people – to “bridge the gap between community safety needs and the role of the RCMP.”

Shea said the program has been tailored to Fort Liard through consultation with residents, community service providers, and hamlet leaders about safety concerns.

“The Hamlet in Fort Liard is best suited to understand and respond to the safety needs of their community,” she said.

Fort Liard has chosen Elder safety as a priority. McKee said helping Elders and other residents is an important community value.

“I think it’s a lot of working together,” he said. “We have the RCMP, of course, who do the criminal stuff, but there are incidents and situations that come up that benefit from having somebody that people can call for all those things that are not really criminal. It’s making sure nobody’s running into trouble, or not being adequately dressed for the cold, or helping them get to a warm place.”

While the territorial government provides some support – such as connecting hamlet staff with federal and territorial resources – building the program from scratch has required administrative tasks like setting up a way to track incidents, creating program policies and protocols, and purchasing a vehicle and uniforms.

“We just don’t have a lot of mentors, so it’s been a huge learning curve,” McKee said.

Slowly, he hopes the hamlet’s residents become familiar with the new officers.

“Soon, people will see the truck out and see somebody in it, knowing that guy can help them out,” he said.

“It’s been a growing process. Now the officers have a bit more training, so they can look back on a few situations they’ve had and maybe think how they could have done it a bit differently. After a year, we’ll be able to make a better assessment of our learning curves. We should have the background issues in place and go into the second and third year with a little more experience and not having to do everything from the ground up.”

– Cabin Radio

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