New approach has officers engaging the community they serve to prevent crime before it happens
A new policing model being embraced by Sudbury police seeks to revolutionize the way the force fights crime.
Greater Sudbury Police Chief Frank Elsner said the goal is for officers to become so involved with the communities they serve, they’ll often know when crime is likely to occur even before it happens.
Elsner, who outlined the model Sept. 5 at a meeting of the Greater Sudbury Police Services Board, cited a recent example from Toronto, in which a homeowner had trouble with neighbourhood teens who were smoking pot. The smell was wafting into his home, and so the man asked the kids to do it somewhere else.
They reacted poorly, so he complained to police. When police arrived, the teens were gone and there was nothing they could do. But the teens retaliated against the homeowner for calling police, and the situation escalated to the point that the teens threw a Molotov cocktail at the man’s home.
So a relatively small problem escalated into a major incident, leaving the homeowner traumatized and the police with a major incident to deal with.
“I can tell you that happens all the time in policing,” Elsner said.
The new model Sudbury police are adopting aims to stop those types of incidents before they spiral out of control. He said there are certain indicators in neighbourhoods that raise the likelihood of a crime being committed.
“Are kids starting to become truant? That’s an indicator. If someone is supposed to be going to drug and alcohol rehab, but stops going, that’s a flag. If someone has been released on conditions to do (certain things) when they have been charged with a criminal offence, and they’re not doing them, that’s a flag.”
The key here is for police, community and social services groups to work together and share information on what’s happening in the communities they serve.
“If we can get early intervention, before they start going seriously off the rails, that’s what we want,” he said. “We can’t work in silos anymore. We have to work together.”
There will be folks who will say that this isn’t real policing. We have to help them understand why we need to make these changes, and that this is the future of policing in this country.
Chief of Police
It’s also a major culture change for police, he said, because they are used to being judged by statistics – how many crimes they solve, for example. But now they’re being asked to broaden their definition of policing.
“What we’re telling our people now is that we want you to engage the community,” Elsner said. “We want you to get out of your cars. We want you to talk with people. We want you to know the people in the area – who owns the Tim (Hortons) on the corner.”
He said there will be some resistance to the new policing model, but getting front-line officers to buy into the plan is key to success.
“There will be folks who will say that this isn’t real policing. We have to help them understand why we need to make these changes, and that this is the future of policing in this country.”
And to drive the point home, Elsner said the way managers judge job performance also has to change.
“We need to change our evaluations to show that we value these things,” and not just the statistics by which police have traditionally been judged – how many arrests, etc. “We need everyone rowing in the same direction.”
And there is proof this model can work. One Canadian community saw a drop in violent crime of 26 per cent after they reformed the way police approach their job. And closer to home, the Zone 30 effort in the Louis and Mountain streets area of Sudbury has had a dramatic effect, with calls to police dropping from several a day to a handful a month.
“The biggest thing we have to do is build relationships and trust,” Elsner said. “As police, we can’t change the social fabric of a community. But we can be part of the solution.”
The first step is to have police go into neighbourhoods with high crime rates and establish their presence – “so people feel safe in their own communities.”
“Then we start to engage them, so people understand if they talk to police, co-operate with police, there won’t be retribution.”
Another key is to get social and community groups to share information -- and that can be the single biggest obstacle, he said.
“It’s all about information sharing,” Elsner said. “And that’s a stumbling block for many agencies.”
But he said since social conditions are so closely linked to crime rates, it’s these frontline agencies that have the information police need to make the new model of policing effective.
“When you go into communities that have high rates of crime, of victimization, you also have higher rates of unemployment, you have residents with poorer health, you have inadequate housing, of welfare – a host of factors,” he said.
The lessons learned on Louis Street are “fantastic examples” of what can happen when police become a part of the community.
Also in the works is a plan to break Sudbury down into five major policing zones, with a staff sergeant tasked with being the “defacto” chief of police for each zone.
“They’ll be responsible not only for the crime statistics in their area, but also for the proactive measures that happen.”
Ward 4 Coun. Evelyn Dutrisac, who sits on the police services board, said she’s excited that the Zone 30 model is being expanded city-wide.
“I have to say the model we have in Zone 30 – whether it be Louis Street or the Donovan or other parts – is working,” Dutrisac said. “I have to say I’m very, very impressed with the basic model ... What we’re doing is improving the quality of life of people who live in these areas.”
Ward 5 Coun. Ron Dupuis, who chairs the board, asked the chief to flesh out his plan for a five-zone city.
“It would be great to have presentations on all five zones,” he said.
Elsner said that’s already being planned, and added they want to present it to community and social service groups across the city.
“That will be my job for the next little while – to get out there and to bang the drum.”