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Toronto police launching enhanced neighbourhood officer program pilot project

Click to play video: 'Toronto police embedding officers in 8 neighbourhoods across GTA' Toronto police embedding officers in 8 neighbourhoods across GTA
WATCH ABOVE: Toronto police are enhancing a program currently in place that embeds officers in neighbourhoods. Caryn Lieberman explains – Sep 27, 2018

Toronto police will be launching a pilot project aimed at enhancing the service’s neighbourhood officer program amid ongoing concerns about gun violence and the allocation of police resources.

Established in 2013, the program operates in 27 neighbourhoods in different police divisions across Toronto. It sees officer deployed in those neighbourhoods to liaise with area residents and gather information on crime-related issues.

However, senior officers said they want to see the program beefed up. Starting on Monday, eight of the 27 City of Toronto-defined neighbourhoods in 11, 22, 41 and 42 Divisions will be a part of a six-month pilot phase of an enhanced program that will see select officers have more robust training, have an increased focus on building relationships, and require officers to serve an extended tenure in the position.

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“These officers will be embedded. [They] will be part of their neighbourhoods for the next four years. I want the neighbourhoods to get to know the officers and the officers to know the neighbourhoods,” Toronto Police Deputy Chief Peter Yuen told Global News during a tour of one of the areas under the program, noting officers under the enhanced program will be issued cellphones for residents to call any time of day or night all year long.
“Strategies [to address crime] will be coming from the neighbourhood officers. They will be telling the command, they will be telling the unit commanders – working along with the communities problem-solving.”

Yuen said the approach, which is similar to programs in Glasgow and New York City, is part of the Toronto Police Service’s efforts to address the root causes of crime and violence. He acknowledged the process of building relationships and gaining trust will take time, saying the results may not be seen immediately.

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“Let’s say for a young person that is at the verge, at the cusp of being a gang member, that person can be saved, if you want to use that word, that person could be offered the opportunities from our officers because they can identify at-risk people,” Yuen said, adding the program is a “long-term investment.”

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“If our neighbourhood officers are doing what they’re supposed to do, the trust will be right there. So after a shooting, I will be very confident to say to the public, the calls will be coming into the Toronto Police Service to say, ‘I saw this, I can tell you this,’ … because they have a point person.

“I’m not suggesting neighbourhood officers are the whole solution. It’s part of the solution working with our other resources. The whole picture put together, our neighbourhood officers, is the beginning and the end of the intelligence cycle.”

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There has been a lot of criticism, especially this summer, about a policing model that some — including the president of the Toronto police union — have called reactive.

Yuen noted this program is the opposite of the controversial Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS).

TAVIS was a rapid response, short-term intervention policing unit formed in 2006 in response to a sharp spike in gun violence, during what is now known as the “summer of the gun,” that saw uniformed officers flood areas after a major incident. But the unit was also known for high rates of “carding,” the process of conducting random street checks, which critics said increased tensions between police and residents of targeted neighbourhoods. It was disbanded in January 2017.

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“We don’t need that term carding because they will know who belongs to the neighbourhood, who doesn’t belong to the neighbourhood. It will give the justification for our officers to investigate, to speak to these people to ask why you’re in these neighbourhoods,” Yuen said.

“That word carding will be irrelevant if this program fulfils its intent 100 per cent.”

Const. Jeff Ma, one of the 40 officers that are a part of the enhanced program, will be on patrol in the Lambton–Baby Point neighbourhood near Jane Street and Dundas Street West starting on Monday. He told Global News he wanted to join the program because he thought “it would be a great way to try policing in a different light.”

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“It’s more of proactively-based. We’re going to go into the neighbourhood and we’re going to interact with the community while being part of primary response — before, we never really had the time to go to interact with the individuals on a more personal basis,” Ma said.

“For them to be able to look at us on a more personal level instead of just seeing the uniform and being able to connect with them as a person.”

Const. Brendan O’Brien, who has served in 11 Division for five years and will also be joining the neighbourhood officer program, said he and others want to improve community relations.

“We can always improve on our relations with the public and I think if we work on it here and they get to know us on a more personal level, I think it would be beneficial for them and for us,” he said.

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“I think it’s going to take time — with time comes trust. If they get to know our faces and keep on seeing us around … hopefully the relationship improves. It’s a two-way street.”

Meanwhile, a report going to the Toronto Police Services Board on Friday outlines a request to expand the neighbourhood officer program to 33 new areas in 2019 — bringing the total to 60 City of Toronto-defined neighbourhoods. The total annual cost will be $16 million if the expanded program is adopted. It’s not clear if the board will consider the request on Friday or at a future time.

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