News

Toronto thinks rebranding some cops can help stop gun violence

Neighbourhood officers are meant to "humanize the badge" but critics call it a band-aid.
November 15, 2018, 5:05pm
Toronto has expanded its neighbourhood police officer program.

They go by a different name, but neighbourhood officers are cops all the same. They carry guns, and can arrest people. They gather intelligence, and get to know the terrain.

Amid efforts to curb gun violence in Toronto, these rebranded officers have emerged as a key part of a strategy that seeks to “humanize the badge” by spending more time in communities.

A recent, enhanced version of neighbourhood policing now have officers carrying mobile devices meant to increase their accessibility, serving out four year terms in a specific community, and attending regular monthly meetings with community members. They also wear vests and baseball caps with “Neighbourhood Officer” emblazoned on them.

But as the level of crime continues to garner headlines — the city has now matched the record number of homicides in any given year, with 89 so far — the central question remains: do more cops create safer cities?

Some see neighbourhood officers as a positive step. Others are skeptical the program will foster better relations between police and community members in the long run, while harsher critics perceive the whole effort to be a distraction by leaders who don’t want to tackle the systemic causes of gun violence.

We spoke to a wide range of people about whether community policing is a step in the right direction in curbing violence in Toronto.

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This past July, a public dispute between Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack and Toronto police chief Mark Saunders was on full display.

McCormack blamed Saunders for reducing the number of frontline officers on the streets, leading to a rising homicide rate. Saunders shot back by saying that he never decreased the number of officers deployed during key overnight hours. The city responded with plans to deploy 200 additional officers during key hours, along with more extensive intelligence gathering strategies.

The hope was that a drastic increase in police presence would mitigate the frequency of gun-related incidents.

According to Toronto police’s own publicly available data, it didn’t really work. Between July 20th and Sept 9th, another 64 shootings occured in Toronto — essentially matching the 65 that had occurred in the two months prior.

But on Oct. 1st, Toronto police made another announcement: an expansion of the five-year-old Enhanced Neighbourhood Officer Program (E.N.O.P.), a strategy that places “neighbourhood officers,” or N.O.s, into communities for long periods of time in order to increase familiarity and crime prevention.

The initiative takes after Britain’s National Reassurance Policing Programme, a strategy that proponents say has helped increase public confidence in police, leading to a reduction in violent crime.

In 2014, a group of academics at Humber College began a three year study of the E.N.O.P. to assess its efficacy and, most importantly, community reception. The principle investigator of that multi-year study was Dr. Jeanine Webber, now a dean at Lethbridge College in Alberta.

She says that the program started off when “command management teams” identified target neighbourhoods by using a “variety of data sources.” In all, 96 N.O.s were deployed across 33 communities in the city.

The Oct. 1 expansion puts 44 N.O.s into eight additional communities from Etobicoke to Scarborough. They’re given a number of new enhancements, including mental health and de-escalation training. There are about 5,000 uniformed police officers in Toronto.

“All of out Neighbourhood Officers are experienced police officers,” says Toronto Police Service spokesperson Sandra Buckler. “There are no new graduate participating in the program.” Buckler also points out that N.O.s are “first and foremost police officers” with their regular duties, and that the “equipment they carry is consistent with all officers.”

“Community members trust the N.O.s”

The main difference is that N.O.s are tasked with actively seeking out and intervening in the community’s challenges instead of reacting only to emergencies. This is supposed to create a stronger relationship between officers and community members. According to Toronto Police Service Deputy Chief Peter Yuen, the whole point is to put the community in the driver’s seat to get police involved more in timely intervention. It’s to “humanize the badge,” he says.

“Community members trust the N.O.s and see them as professional, respectful and as integral parts of their communities,” Webber says. “Over the course of the study, responses from community members indicate that the quality of the relationship between the N.O.s and residents was strengthened.”

She adds that her study included extensive focus group consultations and surveys with community members. The feedback indicates that the plan is working, and all recommendations are being taken seriously by Toronto Police to implement in the current expansion.

“The duration of the current pilot is six months,” Buckler says. “We would like to be in 60 neighbourhoods by October, 2019.”

Band-aids vs. root causes

Not everyone shares this optimism. Some community activists who’ve followed Toronto’s gun violence and policing issues don’t see the E.N.O.P. as a very groundbreaking approach.

“If the gun violence we have is at root a policing problem from day one, then it would’ve been solved by now,” says Louis March, founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement, a grassroots community initiative aimed at ending gun violence in Toronto. “Some baseball caps or mental health training isn’t going to do it. Police are trained to enforce the law, not to be community liaisons. So don’t put them into roles that they cannot do.”

“If the gun violence we have is at root a policing problem from day one, then it would’ve been solved by now.”

“We see police officers at BBQs, we see them at community events, and they still walk around and talk like police officers, looking like police officers. They’re not trained to smile and shake hands and say, ‘Hey how you doing?’ They’re trained to bellow out orders and to use force. You can’t just square a circle,” he adds.

That police officers cannot and should not be expected to step outside the zone of strict law enforcement is perhaps the most recurring criticism of neighbourhood/community policing as an overall approach to crime prevention. Observers like March and others see it as nothing more than a band-aid solution for a problem that requires much more.

“We’ve talked for well over ten years about changing policing, like having less police in cars, more police interacting with folks — this kind of idealized version of the neighbourhood police officer,” says Kofi Hope, a Bousfield Distinguished Visitor in Planning at the University of Toronto. “It’s fine in theory, but we have to ask also why do we have specific neighbourhoods that are targets for this policing? We tend to get these programs in communities that are already over-policed.”

Hope says that flooding certain areas with more and more police — be it N.O.s or otherwise — has the effect of distorting those communities’ crime statistics. The more police look for crimes and people to bust, the more likely they are to find what they’re looking for, and the higher the crime stats rise. Instead of focusing on this singular, security-based approach to mitigating violence, Hope, like March, calls for multidimensional solutions that target the root causes of violence.

The more police look for crimes and people to bust, the more likely they are to find what they’re looking for.

“Policing is a hard job, decisions sometimes have to be made in a split second, and it causes a lot of mental stress,” Hope notes. “So officers can’t be everything and everyone. It’s like how sometimes we expect teachers to be multiple things: a therapist, an educator, or even an absentee parent. It’s just piling on more and more tasks.”

“Getting to the root of the problem would mean addressing the social, emotional and physical well-being of our families in these neighbourhoods,” echoes Nigel Bariffe, a board member at the Urban Alliance on Race Relations. “We have to look at having more psychologists and more youth workers. Those are the resources necessary for actual early interventions that prevent crime.”

He adds that these resources and programs were minimized in the latter years of the Ontario Liberals led by Kathleen Wynne and are now being dismantled almost wholesale by the Ontario PC government under Doug Ford.

“There’s a knee-jerk reaction right now to just put more and more resources into policing after all these shootings, which has led to an impression that the city’s becoming way more violent,” Bariffe notes. “But policing already had a very large budget, yet it didn’t stop shootings in the city.”

Racial profiling and accountability

One vital goal of community-based policing is tackling the systemic lack of trust between many community members and police officers. N.O.s are asked to be stationed for multiple years in communities to build familiarity and rapport with the people living there. They’re also tasked with being more proactive in seeking out people’s concerns and needs, an approach that’s supposed to lead to better crime prevention.

“What you really need ... are program support and opportunities to make all members of the community feel valued as as citizens.”

Though Webber’s study generally portrays community reaction as being very positive toward Toronto’s N.O.s, critics point out that the issue of racial profiling — a huge generator of mistrust against officers — isn’t necessarily something that community-based policing takes into account.

“What you really need to address in these communities, which don’t need more policing or surveillance, are program support and opportunities to make all members of the community feel valued as as citizens,” says Emily Chan, a Staff Lawyer for Litigation and Community Development for Justice for Children and Youth, a non-profit legal aid clinic that provides legal representation or low-income children and youth.

“What they’re describing now as neighbourhood community policing is basically the same officers who’re told to be a little bit friendlier with people. But none of it really speaks directly to the concerns of young people and how policing impacts them,” she says.

Chan points out that N.O.s, like other police officers, are tasked with collecting intelligence, which they can then act on to prevent a crime from taking place. In theory, N.O.s who spend lots of time in the same neighbourhood should develop trust-based relations with those they encounter. But in practice, Chan warns that what unfolds might just be another version of carding, the practice of stopping and questioning people when no particular offence has occurred, and taking down their personal information.

The practice has been restricted for over a year now in Ontario, but the issue of profiling has continued to be a major topic of debate in the city.

“Traditionally what we know is that from the community’s perspective, the interaction between people and the police only happens if they’re suspects or if there’s information to be gathered,” says Knia Singh, a lawyer and activist who has advocated for restricting carding by Toronto police. “Community members are targeted and generally not treated very fairly if they’re close to someone who’s being looked at by police. So it’s generally very difficult for the community to gain trust.”

“We don’t want the same culture of policing just with a different uniform or a different name.”

“We don’t want the same culture of policing just with a different uniform or a different name. We want a shift in the way they deal with people,” he adds.

Of Guyanese and Bermudian heritage, Singh himself has been stopped before by police while in his vehicle. He says the officer dealt with him in an unpleasant and “threatening” manner. Singh tried to stay calm throughout the encounter, something he admits would be very difficult for individuals, especially frustrated youth, who have no legal training or support.

Too little, too late?

Some observers, though skeptical of policing as the single key to violence reduction, refer to the E.N.O.P. and its recent pilot enhancement as a possible step in the right direction. The difficulty is that such steps alone make little difference without broader social interventions to alleviate poverty and deliver new opportunities.

“Most people see the police really as one thing, which is as enforcers, more than anything else. But not as protectors,” says Alvin Curling, a former Liberal MPP for Scarborough and Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

“So if you get the police out of their cars and on foot, then the neighbours would actually know them. Maybe then the police will better understand the neighbourhood. Security isn’t just dependent on the police alone. It takes the whole community. The police have to be respected by the community,” he says.

Curling was also the co-chair of The Review of the Roots of Youth Violence report in 2008, a massive study of the underlying causes of youth violence commissioned not long after the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Manners at Toronto’s C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute. The report concluded, in short, that “entrenched social problems” like poverty and racism have to be addressed in order to mitigate the root causes of youth violence.

“There are too many black kids being stopped on the streets,” says Curling, a Jamaican-Canadian who represented the riding of Scarborough-Rouge River for 20 years. “They don’t see police as protecting them, which is why I’m saying that there should be more police on the ground who actually interact with the people they’re among.”

Curling adds that a lot of the profiling amounts to harassment and he isn’t very happy with the progress being made on that front. He also says that youth who’re under a lot of pressure at home and elsewhere in underserved communities often deal with mental health issues that require much broader social interventions to properly address.

“The efforts to approach these issues and to resolve them take all levels of government now. All levels have to put the funds and resources where they should be for programs to be expanded. From what I can tell, the funds aren’t being geared toward social programs that need to exist--in fact I think things are a bit regressive now. There are a lot of cutbacks,” he says.

“Frankly, mental health and de-escalation training is something that all police need,” says Kofi Hope, who has worked extensively with Toronto’s youth, particularly black youth. “Across the force, that’s important. People have died because of it in their confrontations with police — particularly people of colour — when they didn’t need to.”

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for police to be experimenting, but I’m not sure whether this is going to be transformative or just small, incremental change,” he says.

Jeanine Webber notes that the last phase of the Humber College study on neighbourhood policing found that over 80% of those surveyed gave positive reviews of the model.

Emily Chan however points out that the level of enthusiasm is a lot lower in racialized communities.

“When you put increased police presence in a community, there’s also that increased risk of long term harm, and our concerns have been around rights violations,” she says. “In our experience with young people, we know that the police can be aggressive in their interaction with people, including youth. We have officers who have not behaved well, which creates serious, longer term mistrust.”

Cover image of police at the scene of a shooting in Toronto, on July 22, 2018. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press