The Saskatoon Police Service was grappling with escalating workloads heading into 2020 and a hope to curb a record number of homicides set in 2019.
An unexpected factor changed everything.
“One of the things that changed from previous years was COVID,” police Chief Troy Cooper said during a year-end press conference held on Zoom.
“COVID impacts people’s lives in a number of ways, including how young people are supervised in the community, including how families feel, mental health, a lot of those things.”
The COVID-19 pandemic loomed large over 2020 for Saskatoon police.
Calls for service rose slightly, but for their own safety officers attended fewer scenes.
The novel coronavirus appears to be an underlying factor in lower property crime, but arsons roughly doubled and there was more violence.
“During the first five or six weeks of the COVID environment, our domestic violence calls had not increased over last year, but then the longer people were restricted in their movement, the more we saw in terms of domestic violence,” Cooper said.
“That occurred right through the summer. Then, over the last four weeks, we’ve seen the gap starting to close a little bit as people started to have more freedoms, as people started to get more supports.”
This year also saw the opening of the province’s first supervised consumption site. It’s timely, as opioid use is on the rise in Saskatoon.
At the same time, Cooper said low crystal meth prices continue to make the deadly drug accessible to marginalized users, with meth representing nearly three-quarters of drug-related hospitalizations.
“Our belief is that drugs are more of an influence in our community than they have been previously,” Cooper said.
“Crystal meth, for example, manifests itself in mental health ways and in hospitalization requirements for infections. We know not just from our own stats, but from other stats that drugs are more of an impact now than they ever have had.”
Cooper believes theft from porches and cars is directly tied to drug use.
“Crystal meth is a very inexpensive drug. It’s a drug for people who are on the most marginalized components of drug users. It’s easy to access. It’s difficult to intercept because it’s small, it’s easily concealed,” he said.
“So there’s lots of lots of factors that are occurring around drugs.”
There was early morning panic in August as the service experienced its first Amber Alert. It ended with a four-year-old girl found safe.
However, the search continues for the mother of a baby found dead in a back alley in 2019. This year, police turned to DNA phenotyping to create a sketch of the mother.
Talks continue around other technology — specifically body cameras. A pilot project is planned for 2021.
“Technology can be very useful in building community trust and I think a body-worn camera, that’s a great example of that,” Cooper said.
“Our officers would like to see it because it tells a different perspective, or provides a different perspective. Our community would like to see it because it provides the best evidence of more evidence.”
In June, thousands rallied on Saskatoon streets in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Calls for police reform led the force to consider changes, which will be brought to the city’s board of police commissioners.
“We heard that people would like to have respectful interactions with police. We heard that a trusted mechanism for police oversight was important. We heard that training was really critical,” Cooper said.
“Training for police officers to begin to understand and know their community and not just treat all components of the community the same, but to actually know the different community groups that are here and their different histories.”
Cooper said a new year is a chance to renew relationships and remind ourselves that people are generally good — even in hard times.
“It’s really easy to think of all the negative things that are going on and to think about how it’s impacted us and the many different things that occurred,” he said.
“But one thing that I’m a firm believer in is the fact that people are good, people in our community are good generally.”