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The Toronto Police Service is expanding its neighbourhood-officer program as part of a force-wide attempt to reduce crime and be more “neighbourhood-centric.”

The pool of 96 neighbourhood officers (assigned to 33 of the city’s 144 neighbourhoods) got 20 new service members on Monday. Neighbourhood officers, unlike regular patrol officers, are dedicated to specific communities, where they get to know the residents and help to identify and address the needs of that area.

In total, 44 of these neighbourhood officers, across eight communities, will be participating in an “enhanced neighbourhood-officer pilot program” that will see officers embedded in communities for several years – and available to residents 24/7.

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The project, which will be rolled out in phases over the next year, is being carried out in partnership with Humber College researchers, who have assisted the service with an analysis of its existing program and ways it can be improved.

Doug Thomson, a criminal justice professor at the college and one of the researchers on the project, said he has been struck not only by the TPS’s willingness to work with an outside institution, but by how quickly the force responded to the academic findings.

“I think one of the advantages of Humber doing it, rather than it being done internally, is that we are a completely independent assessment group,” he said.

His team spent the past few years surveying residents in the areas in which neighbourhood officers have been posted, as well as the officers themselves. He said they found that roughly 80 per cent of residents considered the program to be effective. At first, Mr. Thomson acknowledges, he thought there was a mistake – it seemed too high.

He had his students check the numbers again. Though that approval rate was slightly lower (by roughly 5 per cent) among racialized respondents, the figures were indeed correct.

“What really came through in the focus groups was people saying, ‘We’re now seeing the person,’ ” Mr. Thomson said, observing that youths, in particular, said they were able to get to know neighbourhood officers as “normal human beings.”

Deputy Chief Peter Yuen said that is one of the main goals of the program: to “humanize the badge.”

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Under the enhanced program – which is expected to cost $16-million a year – he said the roles of neighbourhood officers will be more defined. They will also receive specific training designed for them, including around de-escalation and dispute resolution, as well as mental-health issues.

Most importantly, he said they will be embedded in their roles for four years.

“I want them to be part of the community,” he said, saying that when he walks into these neighbourhoods four years from now, he wants every person he encounters to know their local officer by name.

In the past, neighbourhood officers were routinely called away from their posts to help with other calls. Now, Deputy Chief Yuen said, the officers will be available on their cellphones 24/7.

By the time the program is fully implemented, Deputy Chief Yuen said there will be roughly 220 officers in 60 neighbourhoods.

There have been more than 300 shootings in Toronto so far this year – more than 40 of which have been fatal. There were 39 fatal shootings in all of 2017, according to TPS data. The enhanced neighbourhood-policing program also aims to help with intelligence gathering.

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Some critics worry the increased police presence could be intimidating.

Louis March, founder of the Toronto-based Zero Gun Violence Movement, said some officers can come off as "aggressive" when they try to speak to community members about gun violence in order to get information on suspects.

“A lot of officers are doing good work,” Mr. March said. “But some officers can be aggressive. There's a lack of empathy, concern, a lack of understanding.”

He said more policing is not the solution to reducing violence, and that the emphasis should instead be on expanding public programming and job opportunities. “It’s about investing and developing these communities."

Deputy Chief Yuen acknowledged that community policing has existed in many iterations over the years, and he added that the police service’s relationships with communities – particularly racialized communities – has not always been positive.

“Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t,” he acknowledged. But strengthening those relationships is their primary goal.

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With a report from The Canadian Press

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