If there is an architectural message conveyed by the cold, fortress-like police stations built in Canada during the past century, it’s this: not a place for law-abiding folks.
Warm, welcoming and community-oriented are not adjectives that would describe the institutional law enforcement buildings of yesteryear. But that’s changing as a growing number of cities across Canada are replacing their stock of aging police stations.
In Saskatoon, a new $101-million downtown police headquarters scheduled to open in late 2013 is more than just an architectural turning point for the Saskatoon Police Service.
The building pays homage to the city’s heritage – it is located at 25th Street East and Ontario Avenue in the warehouse district, which features brick-and-beam early 20th-century factories built in the Chicago architectural style. It’s hoped the new building will become an anchor for the community and an important step in the rejuvenation of a dilapidated downtown neighbourhood.
The design features a large, atrium-style lobby and extensively uses glass around the building to maximize natural light. The building will include community meeting rooms, service-focused areas for public records checks, a police heritage display and a publicly accessible gymnasium.
It’s a far cry from the days when police stations were constructed largely of concrete or brick, fronted by a single entry door and boasted little or no connection to the outside world.
“These new designs are reflective of how society has changed,” says Peter Ortved, a principal with Toronto-based CS & P Architects and the lead architect on the Saskatoon project. “Community policing is the approach police now use throughout Canada and North America. It’s about making the police force more accessible to the community and making the buildings more accessible as a service and institution.”
Law enforcement agencies are increasingly using their facilities as an architectural representation of their transparency, all the while embracing the notion that a community with access to services or meeting spaces – and with whom they can interact and educate –is less likely to end up there for the wrong reasons.
Saskatoon isn’t alone in this approach. Across the country, the evolution of the police station is in full gear as police organizations from the RCMP to local departments are investing millions in new facilities in an effort to improve community relations and, at least in theory, reduce crime rates.
Toronto police unveiled the heritage-inspired 51 Division police station near the city’s historic Distillery District in 2004, for example, much to the delight of architecture buffs and community-policing advocates across the city. Housed in a converted gas purification and distribution building dating to 1899, the award-winning station welcomes area residents with community-focused exhibitions in the atrium-style lobby.
Other cities such as Edmonton and London, Ont., and assorted detachments of the RCMP, have either recently opened, or are building, new police stations that reflect a 21st-century drive to improve community relations, in part through smart building design.
“Nowadays police don’t just chase criminals, they provide proactive programs,” says Victor Kozak, a principal with Stephens Kozak ACI Architects and Planners Ltd., an Edmonton-based firm that specializes in police station design and has developed plans for RCMP detachments in Red Deer and Fort McMurray, Alta.
“Now there are outreach programs with police officers in schools, domestic violence programs, a lot more of the softer programs that police are involved in,” Mr. Kozak adds. “The stations have evolved to accommodate that type of personnel and the people coming in to discuss those issues.”
Staff Sergeant Susan Grant says that, at least in Saskatoon, the approach is working.
“I think [community policing] has a huge impact. It’s a way more comfortable way to police the community and provide service because people are telling us what they need,” Ms. Grant says.
Relations between Saskatoon’s police and some members of its local community – particularly natives – have been widely criticized in the past.
One of the most highly-publicized examples of those strained relations emerged after the conduct of two officers was questioned in the final report of the 2004 Stonechild inquiry, which investigated the freezing death of 17-year-old Neil Stonechild. The aboriginal youth froze to death after being dumped in a field outside Saskatoon on a bitterly cold winter night.
Some alleged the police were responsible for leaving Mr. Stonechild. While the inquiry did not find the two constables responsible for abandoning the youth – or for his death – they were cited for procedural violations surrounding his handling while in their custody and were dismissed from their jobs. Neither officer has faced criminal charges in the matter.
Ms. Grant notes that any time there is an inquiry into police conduct, it benefits both the service and the public by helping to introduce more effective policies. She says the increased emphasis on community policing, along with the community-oriented design of the city’s new police headquarters, are the direct result of efforts to improve police services after tragedies such as the death of Mr. Stonechild.
“Inquiries can actually help the police improve policies and get funding for things we’ve always wanted for operational reasons, like reaching out to the community,” she explains.
While the new headquarters will save the city roughly $1-million annually in rent on multiple spaces as the service consolidates most of its personnel under one roof – except for tiny community-policing satellite offices – the drive to ensure community openness and transparency was equal to financial considerations in the building’s design.
So committed were Saskatoon’s police to the process of building an uber-welcoming facility, for example, that administrators developed a public advisory committee to help shape design plans. One of the more interesting building features that will be included as a direct result of those discussions: change rooms for transgendered community members.
“With our new headquarters, we really wanted to ensure that everyone in the city would feel comfortable coming in to liaise with us,” Ms. Grant explains.
Green and bomb resistant
Beyond community-friendly features, Saskatoon’s new 360,000-square-foot police headquarters will be loaded with high-tech gadgetry worthy of a CSI episode including:
Think forensics labs, an indoor firing range and rooms that allow officers to simulate real-world crime situations, a state-of-the-art detention centre with 50 holding cells and a locked-down property and evidence handling area to ensure tamper-free handling of materials.
A “progressive collapse” structural design ensures that most of the building would remain standing if one section were targeted in a bombing.
Lighting and air-conditioning systems have been designed for greater energy efficiency, low-flow water fixtures have been incorporated throughout the facility – which has been designed to LEED silver standards – while carbon dioxide sensors will control the amount of outdoor air provided to the estimated 650 police and support staff who will work there.
These measures are estimated to reduce energy costs by 47 per cent, compared to Model National Energy Code baseline standards, for savings of up to $200,000 annually, while cutting water usage by 49 per cent based on LEED baseline water-use standards.