We see the problem, now how about a solution?

“Young people right now, in low-income neighbourhoods specifically, don’t feel like they’re being protected, so they’re resorting to their own sorts of protection,” says Tonika Morgan, a youth worker at the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre. “For some people, that means community programs and getting involved, for other people it’s resorting to gun violence. I know a lot of young people are tired of the bad rap they’re getting, but when people don’t feel protected, they create their own movements. Which is how revolutions begin, isn’t it?”

Morgan says her experience comes from having been a homeless youth, and working with homeless youth and youth in at risk communities such as Regent Park, Parkdale and Jane and Finch. Her statements echo the views expressed recently by residents of Alexandra Park, who have characterized their neighbourhood as being “under siege” by police. And those perceptions are wider spread still: a city study of youth in four “at risk” neighbourhoods showed that more than half of them felt police treatment of youth was one of the highest factors affecting their safety.

The equation Morgan makes — community programs as a way to combat youth crime and safety concerns, providing an alternative to gangs and violence — is a key part of Mayor David Miller’s nine-point community safety plan unveiled in February. But, as may be illustrated by the pointed lack of police presence on the panel appointed to investigate and steer the mayor’s plan, the combating-youth-crime-through-community-centres approach does not address the question of police relations with young people and low-income communities.

To that end, Councillor Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), vice chair of the Police Services Board, says there are some big-picture solutions available.

“In my view, we should have a police force that reflects the full face of the community, so that kids can see themselves reflected in the officers they interact with,” McConnell says, referring to the fact that though 50 per cent of Toronto’s population are visible minorities, only 15 per cent of the police force is. “And we should have community policing so that officers get to see youth in positive ways in their neighbourhood, so that they see them as people who are part of the neighbourhood.”

Community policing is a strategy that has become more popular across North America since the early 1990s. It involves an emphasis on foot patrol officers and co-operation by police with neighbourhood groups, social agencies and education programs and involvement in local community events. It’s a strategy that has enjoyed remarkable success in some places it’s been implemented. One 2001 Chicago community policing study conductd by Northwestern University entitled Taking Stock, showed that, over a 10-year period, crime rates in nearly every category dropped precipitously. In African-American neighbourhoods, for instance, robbery was down 60 per cent, murder by 38 per cent and assault by 33 per cent. These drops in all categories except homicide far outpaced national averages.

Toronto does have a fledgling community-policing program, but many are concerned that the force has yet to put its back into it. As John Sewell lamented in Citystate on April 1, community policing support accounts for only $1.4 million of the Police Service’s proposed $688 million 2004 budget.

McConnell is convinced Toronto needs community policing. She says we need to “give an opportunity for police to get together as mentors and friends.” She points to recent successes between 51 Division and Regent Park, especially in pick-up basketball games between youth and police. The young man from Alexandra Park who has made allegations of police abuse (see “Living in fear of cops, pt. I,” April 1) mentioned this program specifically as something he thinks would positively change his community.

“You get something like that and you get interaction between kids and the police, which is always a good thing,” says Constable Joe Smith of 51 Division. Without such programs, he says, relationships tend to be more confrontational. “In most instances the only time kids would come into contact with the police is if they’re school-aged children in the schools with the school liaison officers … and for the older youth about the only time they interact with the police would be with the patrol car driving along, stopping and investigating somebody.”

Smith says there have been other such initiatives instituted in Regent Park, such as barbeques for as many as 600 kids, and that they’re working. Though he couldn’t say whether there’s been any change in the crime rate, he says they’ve made the community safer for both police and residents. “I’ve been down in this division for quite a number of years, and at one point the police were basically not welcome in Regent Park, and that’s completely turned around,” he says.

McConnell says the success of such programs needs to be documented so that they can be more widely applied across the city. “It’s these sorts of positive [programs] that not only allow our kids to respect the police, but also police to respect them,” she says. “I think there’s an awful lot the youth in our communities have to offer, and we really need to capitalize on them. It’s an important lesson for us in the policing part of the stratbeegy to make sure there’s an open dialogue between youth and police.”

But not all youth activists are convinced that getting police involved in the community is the solution. Jamal Clarke is a 19-year-old high school student and a member of the Toronto Youth Cabinet who lives near Jane and Finch. “Many people urge the police to become more like social workers than police officers … the reason why I laugh at that is because a police officer can act like a social worker, but as soon as they find out the law’s being broken, they have to do what their job requires them to do.” Clarke says this is a problem that’s emerged in the basketball games: kids give police their names and nicknames and personal information and find that information is used against them later when the police are on patrol.

He says such programs might work in the long term, for a generation that’s yet to develop negative associations with the police. “There’s a culture right now where the police are the enemy,” he says, adding that it would be foolish to try to change that overnight.

Clarke suggests that the city should focus on programs he characterizes as “people governing the people,” like the two he’s involved with, One Love and Friend in Trouble. Such organizations, founded and staffed by youth, would help first-time offenders make bail and find mentors, help stream young people not just into trade programs but into university, fight zero-tolerance policies in schools and provide a liaison for young people to the police. He says it’s vital that such programs actually employ the youth they intend to serve, because the money will get them involved.

In the meantime, his advice to the police is to work on their attitudes and focus on their jobs. “They should stop thinking from their power trip … what they should do is give more support rather than disciplinary action.”

Morgan says that police community programs can be effective in addressing concerns like Clarke’s, but warns that police must join existing programs rather than hijacking or duplicating them. “For me, it boils down to active partnerships, like taking part in community events, helping plan the event, running some workshops, teaching young people skills,” she says.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on April 15, 2004. 

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