What do you imagine when you imagine good policing? For most Canadians, the images that come to mind are of officers calmly resolving conflicts without physical force, helping people feel safe, and interacting positively with the disadvantaged. These are the signs of strong community policing, where officers are a genuinely welcome part of the community. Wilfrid Laurier University’s online Bachelor of Policing is dedicated to graduating officers prepared from day one to adapt to the changing face of law enforcement in Canada, which is moving from a punitive focus to one based on crime prevention via mutual respect.
Today, 76% of Canadians would say they have confidence in the police as an institution, but approval ratings for many local forces are much lower.[i] Nearly half of Calgarians disapprove of their own police department, and a similar percentage of Torontonians feel the Toronto Police Service treats people differently based on race. This number is even higher among persons of colour. Let’s look at what community policing really means, and how it can help shore up taxpayer trust in law enforcement.
Community Policing: A Definition
Public Safety Canada (PSC) defines Community Policing as follows:
Community policing is a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies that support the systemic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime." [iii]
Put more simply, Community Policing is about integrating police departments more closely with the communities they serve. Residents and neighbourhood groups are given a seat at the table to participate in developing enforcement strategies and goals. At the same time, relationships are established with partners such as local government, nonprofits and community health centres.
Individual officers are encouraged to become involved in neighbourhood extracurriculars, particularly those involving at-risk youths. The logic is that when residents and officers interact outside the context of distress or arrest, they are more easily able to establish a baseline of trust and mutual respect. Commensurately, these officers are allowed to exercise more of their own discretion, taking advantage of their direct knowledge of their territory.
Principles & Benefits of Community Policing
Community policing has its roots in a set of principles set out by Sir Robert Peel, the UK Home Secretary who created London’s Metropolitan Police in 1822.[iii] While today virtually every city and town has its own police, at the time, there was some public resistance to the idea of a formal, armed department. It raised spectres of military occupation and political oppression.
The first of Peel’s famous principles addresses the unique precarity of law enforcement’s role in society by defining the Metropolitan’s role as follows: “To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.”
In this concept, the central role of the police is not commanding obedience from citizens under threat, but is rather to serve as a bulwark of order and stability. They perform their duties at the pleasure of the taxpayer, and the more secure they make those taxpayers feel, the less the application of force is required to create that sense of order.
Community Policing in Canada: Case Studies
One of the principle reasons a commitment to community policing is so critical at this juncture is the increased public awareness of friction between officers and minority communities. A spate of recent killings of unarmed people of colour by police officers in Canada and the United States, often documented on cell phone videos and body cameras, has inflamed social media and led to civil unrest in cities such as Ferguson, Chicago and Baltimore. Examples such as Toronto’s Somali Liaison Unit and Calgary’s Youth At Risk Development (YARD) Program point toward other alternatives.
As detailed in a CBC profile,[iv] both programs focused on low-income, highly-racialized communities where trust in local police had reached a nadir: in Toronto’s case, the large Somali community concentrated in Rexdale; in Calgary’s, at-risk youth 13 to 16 from across the city as a whole. The successes of each program stemmed from officers allowing themselves to be seen as human beings outside of the context of their badge. A Somali officer attending mosque in the neighbourhood he patrols is a powerful symbol, as is an officer becoming such a close part of a YARD teen’s life that the teen feels safe seeking his assistance, and even reporting crimes.
Although community policing programs sometimes come with seemingly high up-front costs (each YARD participant costs over $23,000 to fund), these costs are often substantially less than the price of fielding additional officers and funding overtime to deal with the crimes programs like YARD ultimately reduce. Just as our vision of prisons is shifting from houses of punishment to facilities with the potential to rehabilitate criminals, so too does the spreading popularity of community policing signal a change in our priorities.
For more information, please see Trends in Canadian Law Enforcement Today: Anti-Oppression and What Does Your Policing Body Language Say About You?