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Toronto, which has seen multiple gun homicides in recent weeks, is set to begin a pilot project modelled after a successful northern Saskatchewan strategy which targets youth in crisis before they become criminals. (Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto, which has seen multiple gun homicides in recent weeks, is set to begin a pilot project modelled after a successful northern Saskatchewan strategy which targets youth in crisis before they become criminals. (Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail)

Toronto tries Saskatchewan’s method for stopping crime before it starts Add to ...

Toronto has seen 25 shootings and four killings in three days, as well as other gun-related deaths in some of the most public and perceived safe spaces – a community barbecue, ice cream parlour, primary school playground and popular downtown mall – all shattering the community’s sense of security.

While police have made some arrests and are continuing their investigations, they are also beginning to implement a pilot project aimed at stopping violent crimes before they happen. It’s revolutionary in its simplicity: Get existing community agencies working together, track results and use evidence to move forward.

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The model comes from Prince Albert, Sask., where the program is turning heads and getting results. Adopted from a successful plan in Glasgow, Scotland, it doesn’t involve more officers making more arrests, cracking down on miscreants or handing out more punitive sentences. Instead, it will assess risk factors in individuals, families and places to prevent people from offending or becoming victims of crime.

The three-month pilot – entitled Furthering Communities and Uniting Services (FOCUS) – involves police and community agencies. It begins in September in Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood with “the full support of Chief [Bill] Blair,” said Deputy Police Chief Peter Sloly. “If it works in the way that other sites have worked, it should actually reduce costs.”

FOCUS has already started its twice-weekly meetings. It has already garnered interest from the province, and has applied for a proceeds-of-crime grant from the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.

“If we know someone is going down a wrong path, why wouldn’t we stop that?” says the project’s lead officer, Sergeant Greg Watts.

Prince Albert adopted the program in 2007 when Chief Dale McFee saw a police force in crisis and the telltale signs of a doomed business model.

In most of Canada, the population is aging, the crime rate dropping. This northern Saskatchewan community had it the other way around: In eight years, crime rates more than doubled. The 35,000-person town has the most police calls per capita in the province.

Eighteen months in, the new strategy is working: Violent crime in Prince Albert is down 28 per cent compared to mid-year 2011, after years of consecutive increases. “We’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of our troubles,” Chief McFee said. “This is moving from a political argument of ‘tough on crime,’ ‘soft on crime.’ … This is smart on community safety.”

In 2007, almost half of Prince Albert’s crimes were perpetrated by people between 15 and 24 years old. Vulnerable kids were bouncing through the justice system, the health system and the social services system – all in costly isolation, and with few positive outcomes.

“You look at it and ask, ‘What’s better? What’s changed?’ ” Chief McFee said. “We’d better start looking at this differently if we’re going to start maximizing our results.”

He cast around for other communities with similar problems, and set on Glasgow. That city’s police force was also dealing with substance abuse, gangs, domestic violence and youth crime. In 2005, police came up with a solution: They got different agencies talking to one another.

Some of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit’s priorities are no-brainers: Prevention is cheaper than enforcement – if you do that well, it frees up resources to stop offenders who need the full brunt of the law. Communicate and co-ordinate with other agencies. Measure what you’re doing to see how it works, and act on that evidence.

Other initiatives aren’t so obvious: Police and social workers set up a program getting dentists to look out for women sporting signs of domestic abuse. A trusted medical professional can catch bruises or chipped teeth and encourage a patient to report it. Failing that, the dentist can document the abuse in case charges are pursued in the future.

“Even the most effective policing system in the world will not reduce violence,” says John Carnochan, detective chief superintendent and co-director of the Violence Reduction Unit. “If we can catch [potential offenders] at the top and stop them from falling, that’s public health.”

It’s also crime prevention, years in advance. “It’s about joining the dots. It’s about thinking a bit more laterally about this,” Det. Carnochan said.

Part of the initiative’s appeal is that this isn’t capital-intensive. It’s about communication, not money.

“It’s core business,” Det. Carnochan said. “We’re not saying, ‘Let’s teach every 17-year-old to play the piano.’ ”

Back in Toronto, Deputy Sloly argues that the key difference to the pilot program’s approach is the reliance on evidence-based research.

“Everyone can point to individuals, families, small neighbourhoods, buildings, where … you can see how they go from not so good to really lousy,” he said. “If we invested there, we could have changed the course of action. A lot of that is rear-view mirror kind of stuff, but certain types of evidence-based interventions, within the right context, at the right time …you’re going to have a greater level of success.”

Other police forces are also sitting up and taking notice. Along with Toronto, Waterloo, Ont., plans to follow suit.

With a report  from Jane Switzer

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