Lethbridge police provide first update on new downtown programs

WATCH ABOVE: The Lethbridge Police Service presented at city hall Monday, giving its first quarterly update on two programs implemented earlier this year: The Watch and Lethbridge’s new Community Peace Officers. Danica Ferris has more.

The Lethbridge Police Service (LPS) has implemented two new patrol options in downtown Lethbridge this year — the Watch program as well as Community Peace Officers (CPOs) — and Monday, provided its first quarterly update to members of city council.

Meeting as the Community Issues Committee (CIC), councillors heard from acting chief Scott Woods, Watch manager Jeff Hansen, and Sgt. Mike Williamson.

Watch volunteers have been patrolling the downtown streets since the beginning of May, and Hansen said it was a steep learning curve for his team.

READ MORE: Lethbridge’s The Watch program hits the streets, sees positive reviews

“That first month of May, I mean we did call LPS a lot,” Hansen laughed, “[but] I think what we were intended to do, we’ve done.”

“I’ve seen a drastic drop in needle pickup, my team even talks that just since May those numbers have dropped drastically.”

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Hansen told the CIC that after 110 needle pickups — through ARCHES — in their first month of May, the Watch saw that number decrease to 53 in June, and it has continued to drop.

Members of the Watch patrol the downtown streets in four-hour shifts between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily, and the program was intended to relieve some of the burden of downtown crime from police officers.

Word of all the services that Watch volunteers provide has slowly spread, with its Safe Walk program gaining callers.

READ MORE: Watch volunteers complete training, ready to patrol Lethbridge’s downtown starting May 1

Hansen said after zero calls for volunteers to walk with nervous or uncomfortable citizens in the downtown in their initial month, that number climbed to eight calls in June and 28 calls in July; and he believes it will continue to climb.

“I think as we get into the colder months — and as it starts getting darker — we may see our calls go up,” Hansen said.

Many of the volunteers on Hansen’s team are criminal justice students and young people with aspirations to one day have careers in policing.

“I think the big takeaway — as a chair or a commission member — would be the fact that there’s been very little turnover,” Lethbridge Police Commission Chair Peter Deys said.

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“We heard that only three people have left the program, and so I think that is something that’s very significant as far as how it’s being received.”

Soon to join Watch volunteers on the streets will be nine Community Peace Officers, who are scheduled to complete their training and patrol the downtown solo in the second week of November.

READ MORE: Lethbridge Community Peace Officers sworn in, ready to begin field training

“It is very, very unique, this is the first that it’s ever been attempted in Alberta,” Sgt. Williamson said.

“We’re in the early stages — very hard to tell what’s going to come out — but I’m very, very excited where we’re going. It’s a new age in law enforcement.”

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With both CPOs and the Watch downtown, the expectation is that it will free up LPS officers to deal with crime in the rest of the city.

“We find that it’s a very cost-effective way that the commission and the Lethbridge Police Service can provide policing, especially in the area of the downtown core,” Deys said.

LPS will now begin the search for experienced CPOs to join its first nine in hopes of getting the total number up to 15.

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As for the Watch program, 25 new volunteers began their training Monday night.

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