Updated: Mar 1, 2021
The Community Policing Model (CPM) was developed close to ten years ago and was received with much criticism. However, the many police agencies that have implemented the CPM are experiencing positive results. The CPM offers a viable solution to crime prevention and neighborhood safety and should be a model adopted by all police agencies with at-risk neighborhoods.
Picture a children’s playground and splash pad situated in the middle of a community of families, meeting all of the city’s safe regulations and fully functional; nevertheless, the play area is almost always void of life. There is no group of youngsters on the structure playing games of tag, the swings and the teeter-totter remain motionless, groups of parents do not gather around the play area bragging around their child’s latest accomplishments and the joyous sound of children’s laughter is eternally absent. This playground is located in the northern region in the city of Toronto, flanked by a prominent Canadian university, in an area where children and families are plenty. So, why would a fully functional playground remain empty and unused in the middle of a community bordered by a neighbourhood of budding families?
The vacant playground is situated in a Toronto Housing complex, in a region that has been plagued by a long history of gang violence. The surrounding community has seen its share of the gang culture, including drug dealing, turf wars, and numerous senseless gang related homicides. The playground isn’t utilized by the area’s children because the structure is unfit to use, not because of hazardous material, but because of the hazardous behaviour of the nefarious gang members that also reside in the encompassing vicinity. Each time families step out the front door of their home, they fear for their security and well-being. Community members are afraid that their children will become collateral damage as a result of another gang shooting; they don’t want their precious offspring becoming an additional fatality that contributes Toronto’s rising homicide rate (Edward, 2016).
I have spent numerous years policing in this area as a uniformed police officer, and I have witnessed first-hand the toll the gang culture is having on the honest people in this community. I have arrested more than a few undesirable characters in this neighbourhood for carrying illegal firearms, I have been to homicide scenes in their community where blood is splattered in the pathways where parents walk their children to school. I know why the playground is empty: individuals in the community have told me that “I can’t bring my children to the park, it’s too dangerous there”. They are trapped in their own neighbourhood, paralyzed by the threat of gang violence. These families refuse to let their children out into the community because they know the threat of gang violence is real in the area they reside; it’s just not a headline in the Toronto Star (Small, 2007).
Historically, police have tried to keep communities safe through various “Community Engagement” initiatives or strategies that have a varying effect and degrees of success. Traditional forms of policing approaches, such as the practice of carding, that have been utilized to prevent and solve crime and disorder haven’t been working; at best they have been short-term solutions to long-term problems that are deeply rooted in these at-risk neighbourhoods. Former Toronto Police deputy chief Peter Sloly deemed carding as an ‘incredibly effective tool’ to police investigators (“Toronto police carding,” 2013). However, the side-effects of the practice of carding cause the communities it was being utilized in to feel like they were being unfairly targeted by members of the police service. Carding appeared to do more damage to the community that good. These traditional strategies were developed by police agencies without input from the community, which led to a disconnection between police and the neighbourhood they serve. Recently changes have been made to improve that disconnection between the police and the citizens they serve including a community engagement practice strategy that is being employed by various policing agencies throughout Canada, the Community Policing Model .
The CPM is a model that encourages the police to engage at-risk communities to assist these troubled areas in healing themselves. This strategy places police officers in the communities they serve for extended periods of time to learn about the issues affecting the community and assist community members in problem solving efforts to proactively address circumstances that cause concern for public safety such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime. The goal of community policing is to unite citizens and police in an effort to thwart and solve neighborhood issues. This model puts the emphasis on stopping crime before it happens, instead of reacting to criminality as it occurs. The community and police become a cohesive unit working together to make their living areas a safer place to reside. The CPM has found an answer for the division between police services and the neighborhoods they patrol by encouraging police agencies to establish community bonds to aid law enforcement in understanding what is happening in the community, why it is happening in the community, and who is being affected in the community. This partnership strengthens the bond between police and the community and offers a united front when confronting the issues that threaten their neighborhoods. The CPM offers a viable solution to crime prevention and neighborhood safety and should be a model adopted by police agencies with at-risk neighborhood.
This summer, I was assigned to a neighborhood safety unit that had the opportunity to implement the CPM in some of Toronto’s at-risk neighborhoods, and our unit experienced the benefits and rewards that this model offered. We went into communities with the goal of establishing a relationship with the members of these at-risk neighborhoods and developing a partnership that would aid us in finding answers to the issues causing these communities great pains. Cultivating relationships with these residents would be “easier said than done”, though, as the communities that we were assigned to engage had a long history of mistrusting the police.
In order to heal these severed bonds in the community, we had to try a different approach, by applying the CPM. We spoke to anyone and everyone in the community that was willing to talk to us; we spoke with the young and old, about topics ranging from hockey trivia, police protocol, baking recipes and parental advice. We were becoming social-butterflies with badges; everywhere we walked we found someone to talk to, and occasionally we would even be treated to card tricks. Our actions were starting to break down barriers; individuals that had mistrusted our uniform in the past were seeing us as ordinary people, much like themselves. Our casual conversations and our authentic attitude demonstrated to the people living within the community that we genuinely cared. We worked with community members to develop a youth program to help deter the gang recruitment that was plaguing their neighbourhood.
Even with all the good work that we were doing, there was still criticism that comes along with implementing this type of model.
Critics of the Community Policing Model suggest that the model stretches police resources too thin. With limited scout cars on the road and budgetary constraints, how can a police services provide effective and efficient service to the citizens of the municipality it serves? In the course of their duties, officers are assigned to respond to 911 radio calls; added neighbourhood patrols would only increase the response times on those 911 radio calls. Critics propose that there would be a backlog of radio calls for service, which they believe would extend the average police response times considerably, causing concern for someone in need of police assistance in an emergency setting.
There are also critics that equate this type police behaviour to a form of social work, inferring that officers are not enforcing the law when it is required, but instead they “letting things slide”. Critics believe that when officers are polite and lenient towards the offender and his actions, by letting the low level crimes go undisciplined, that neglect of punishment adds to reinforcing the criminal’s behaviour. Very much like parents that refuse to discipline their children because they feel that the child should be able to express themselves, those parents will spend their children’s teenage years engulfed in heated battles (Pollard, 2013). Other critics believe the type of policing that the CPM offers places officers at risk. While officers are creating social connections with community members they “let their guard down” and become oblivious to the hazards around them; gang members that are living in these at-risk neighborhoods could possibly be inclined to harm a police officer while they are distracted assisting a community member (Borrello, 1998). In addition, community policing is functional only if the neighborhood is invested in the program. In order for the CPM to function there must be a willingness to work with the police. Some communities still have a deeply rooted loathing for police involvement and reject any or all police contribution. Neighborhoods where street gangs exist are hard to infiltrate due to their many years of exposure to the gang culture that has been infused throughout the community; these communities have been held captive in the gang culture intimidation, acts of violence, and displays of dominance. These citizens are paralyzed with fear, scared to interact with the police because they are afraid of what the gang members will do to them or their family if they are seen communicating with the police.
In contrast to the fear of CPM increasing crime, many police chiefs of departments that employ the CPM credit the model for lowering crime rates in their jurisdiction; they claim it has restored order to their communities. Former President Bill Clinton lauded the idea of the CPM in one of his State of the Union addresses, citing New York City’s program as a prime example. “During the 1990s, crime rates in New York City dropped dramatically, even more than in the United States as a whole. Violent crime declined by more than 56 percent in the City, compared to about 28 percent in the nation as whole. Property crimes tumbled by about 65 percent, but fell only 26 percent nationally”, (Francis, 2000). Our own experiences policing in these at-risk communities help substantiate that the CPM was effective. Prior to our team’s summer deployment, numerous officers from our squad had worked in these areas, and during that time they had experienced a high rate of radio calls for service, including drug trafficking, shootings, and gang related homicides. Throughout our placement in these at-risk neighbourhoods, we noticed a significant drop in the number of radio calls for service in the areas that we were located. The reduction in calls for service in the at-risk neighbourhoods also freed up the police service’s Primary Response Officers and made them available for high priority radio calls, proving that we weren’t stretching our resources; we actually helped extend strained resources.
Police officers deal with people “in crisis” on a fairly regular basis throughout the course of their duties. When encountering a person “in crisis” there is potential for the encounter to end in deadly force, much like the shooting death of Sammy Yatim (Kari, 2016). In his 2104 report, titled Police Encounters with People in Crisis, the Honourable Frank Iacobucci recommended police services should alter their thinking on their use of force training. Training should emphasize that, in situations involving troubled people, police “are usually required to play a helping role, not an enforcement role.”(Iacobucci, 2014). As a result of the Iacobucci Report, and in order to prevent situations like the shooting of Mr. Yatim, the Toronto Police Service committed to training their officers in improved communication tactics. Each front line officer is now required to receive annual training in crisis negotiation skills. The course is chock full of de-escalation techniques that are useful in any setting, including when dealing with a person in crisis. Other recommendations from the Iacobucci Report include the hiring of police recruits educated in fields such as nursing and social work, a recommendation that the Toronto Police Service Employment Unit has already implemented.
The CPM is about breaking down the barriers between neighborhoods and law enforcement, healing the severed relationships that were caused by past failures. Going into at-risk neighbourhoods with an effort to find someone to build a relationship with can be an arduous task; however, it is not impossible. People inherently want to live in a safe environment, a place to build a family, a home to relax in after a long day at work, not reside in a neighbourhood that is endangered by consistent gang violence; the police have the same goal for them. The CPM encourages officers to engage the community and find out their values, concerns and ideas for a safer neighbourhood, creating a partnership that will empower the community to problem solve on their own. As my unit experienced, there were people in the community who like the police, who want to help clean up their neighbourhood, but they remain in the shadows because they are fearful, scared that they or their family members might be targeted by gang members as a consequence for their bravery. We found those people; we shared their same values and goals for a safer community and supported them in their efforts to clean up their neighbourhood. We gave them confidence to stand-up with the assurance of our long-term commitment. It takes an effort to bring these community members out of the shadows and instill the confidence that is needed to stand up for their neighbourhood, but rewarding them with a safer communityis a worthwhile goal.
The playground is filled with the laughter of young children, a sign that things in the neighbourhood have shifted. I experienced the “divide” between the community and police when I first started working in the areas surrounding the infamous Jane and Finch corridor eight years ago as a primary response officer. I came into contact with residents that detested the police uniform because of the poor relationship police had with the community. Almost a decade later, that poor relationship is slowly healing as a result of the CPM. Becoming social butterflies with badges was worth every moment, because starting the conversation is what it took for this community to start the journey to heal itself. Our partnership’s success is measurable in the elimination of shootings in the area, and the reduction of radio calls to that neighbourhood; however, the best way we measured our accomplishment is in the changes that have occurred in the community, from the residents coming to police with information about gang activity without fearing reprisal, to the children’s loud infectious laugher permeating throughout the park, to the residents telling us “Thank you, I feel safe at home”.
Borrello, A. J. (1998, October 1). The bias against community orientated policing. Police : The Law Enfocement Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.policemag.com/channel/patrol/articles/1998/10/community-oriented-policing-is-it-nonsense-or-success.aspx
Edward, P. (2016, June 8). Toronto on track for worst gun death toll in more than a decade. Toronto Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2016/06/08/toronto-on-track-for-worst-gun-death-toll-in-more-than-a-decade.html
Francis, D. R. (2000, October 15). What reduced crime in New York City. The National Bureau of Economic Reserch. Retrieved from http://www.nber.org/digest/jan03/w9061.html
Goldstein, H. (1990, December 30). Does community policing work? Efficient, cooperative. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1990/12/30/opinion/does-community-policing-work-efficient-cooperative.html
Iacobucci, T. H. (2014, July). Police Encounters with People in Crisis. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Retrieved from https://www.torontopolice.on.ca/publications/files/reports/police_encounters_with_people_in_crisis_2014.pdf
Kari, S. (2016, Janurary 20). What the jury didn't know in the Forcillo murder trial. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/what-the-jury-didnt-know-in-the-forcillo-murder-trial/article28280691/
Pollard, S. (2013, May 1). The police should be law enforcers not social workers. Express. Retrieved from http://www.express.co.uk/comment/expresscomment/395991/The-police-should-be-law-enforcers-not-social-workers