Toronto online neighbourhood watch program helping police crack down on crime

Click to play video: 'Toronto’s Yonge and Lawrence community forms online neighbourhood watch program'
Toronto’s Yonge and Lawrence community forms online neighbourhood watch program
WATCH ABOVE: Residents in Toronto's Yonge and Lawrence area came together to form an online neighbourhood watch community in partnership with the officers at 53 Division in late 2017. Months later, the program is seeing successful results – Jul 20, 2018

An online neighbourhood watch program developed by a Toronto mother after a resident had her face slashed last year has developed into, what police say is, a value tool for officers in addressing and solving criminal complaints in the local community.

“It was a Saturday at noon, a young woman was followed from the subway by a guy and he ended up coming up from behind her without notice, slashed her and stabbed her in the head and the neck in front of one of one of my neighbours’ homes,” DiDi Cameron told Global News on Friday as she recalled the October incident.

“When I found out that there was not enough call officers that day, and obviously enough street officers, it terrified a lot of us.”

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That incident prompted Cameron to meet with a ‘like-minded’ friend to discuss about how to create a program that allowed neighbours to communicate effectively and safely.

“So days after that incident in the fall I decided to go door-to-door in my neighbourhood and tell people about this online, private Google group that was being set up,” Cameron said.

“It has strict rules, you have to be invited and you can follow the emails that I get sent. It’s archived in case you join months later. And within days, I had 80 members.”

Word of mouth circulated about this emerging neighbourhood network, Cameron said, and the group swelled to hundreds of families. She even ordered ‘Neighbourhood watch, we call police’ signs, which Cameron said were popular and quickly taken to be put on display.

“It’s a great way for our neighbours and the members of the group to be notified, and communicate about, neighbourhood safety, local criminal incidents, suspicious criminal incidents and crime prevention,” she said, adding the communications involve the sharing of written reports, photos and surveillance video through the group and by email.

The group’s most recent success story happened just last week.

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“One of my neighbours woke up in the morning and realized they’d been robbed while they were asleep. They went and looked at their security camera and had amazing images of the individual,” Cameron said noting the residents contacted police and shared the video with officers.

“She also sent the image to me, I then sent an email attachment through my online Google group … they all get an email. I said, ‘If you can identify this person, please call the authorities.'”

Toronto Police Service Const. Timothy Somers, who works as the crime prevention officer for 53 Division and is Cameron’s direct connection with police, said the community mobilization allowed investigators to move quickly.

“Within hours we had the suspect identified, tracked a location and had him under arrest,” he said.

“None of that would have happened without this network that they’ve created.”

Cameron serves as a community police liaison member in 53 Division and through her direct connection with Somers, he is able to filter the concerns and forward issues to the appropriate police teams.

“It’s an open communication line with the police without having to necessarily pick up that phone and call the police, which we all know unfortunately under today’s environment could be hours or days before you get a response,” he said.

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“This way we’re getting instant information. That information is immediately provided to the investigators for things like photo recognition or crime scene comparison, M.O. comparison, and then it allows for immediate, on-the-ground investigation.”

Somers referenced an investigation earlier this year in which a person was notified through a doorbell video surveillance system’s motion detectors that someone was casing the house and looking through the windows. That video was sent to the group and Somers said others reported the same individual at their property, which gave officers the information they needed to identify a pattern and a suspect.

For those looking to set up a similar program in their neighbourhood, Somers encouraged residents to contact their local police station and ask to speak with the crime prevention officer. He said there is an increasing willingness to engage in these types of community networks. Somers also noted Toronto police auxiliary officers are available to attend properties to provide advice on things people can do to make their homes less likely targets.

If you’re looking to install video surveillance at your home, Somers encourages people to consider using multiple cameras with day and night vision capabilities. He said the cameras should be connected to direct or cloud recording systems, adding the videos should be easily retrievable.

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For those who want to buy a more inexpensive camera, Somers recommended using Ring or Nest systems at the front door. He said both have motion sensors, high-definition cameras with two-way communication systems and instant access to video.

Meanwhile, Cameron said the stabbing incident at the end of street continues to motivate her in growing and supporting the neighbourhood network.

“I love doing this, but the reason is it can happen to anyone at any time … It is a great way for people who feel powerless or wait for officers or other officials to tell them what to do,” she said.

“This is a very simple, quick, easy way to get something up and running, and share and do something with the people who are close to you … the results are positive.”

Cameron also had a message on behalf of network members to anyone who might consider targeting their community.

“We set up a program that [has] a direct link to our division. I work with senior officers. We have a plan of action and we have implemented it.”

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