In the months before a gunman took four lives in La Loche, town leaders debated adopting a made-in-Saskatchewan crime-prevention model designed to identify and pre-empt residents on the verge of committing crimes.
The model, piloted in Prince Albert five years ago, has since gained an international following, imitated across the continent for an approach to community safety that borrows equally from public-health modelling, macroeconomics and Moneyball.
Enthusiasm for the new way of criminal justice does not extend to La Loche, however.
"We talked about it a few months ago," said Leonard Montgrand, president of the La Loche Friendship Centre, which houses a range of social services that would be key to establishing the Prince Albert model in La Loche. "We were trying to see if this model would work for us. It seems to work well in the cities, but we're not so sure it will work well here."
It is too early to say whether any community safety program could have pre-empted the rampage in La Loche on Jan. 22, which left seven others wounded. A 17-year-old boy, who can't be named under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, has been charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder.
"We don't know enough about what happened there to say one or two things could have prevented this," said Dale McFee, the province's deputy minister of corrections and policing. "We need to debrief. It's a tragic situation. So many people's lives have been touched. We have to figure out what could have been done."
Mr. McFee, a plainspoken former junior hockey star and police chief, is the force behind Saskatchewan's evolving criminal-justice model, an approach he's confident can reduce calls to police by 30 to 40 per cent. The province's Building Partnerships to Reduce Crime Strategy represents a philosophical shift in how government views crime – from a cop-and-corrections issue to a social-wellness issue, where teachers, nurses, social workers and addictions counsellors play an equal role to police and jail guards.
The frontline of the strategy is called a Hub, an alliance of local service providers – police, educators, social services workers, doctors and others – who meet twice-weekly to discuss emerging community concerns. They act as both an early warning system and rapid-intervention team for at-risk residents.
Around a table, Hub members name residents at risk of future criminality. Their submissions are based upon a complex matrix of risk factors that are generally good predictors of future delinquency, including homelessness, addictions, truancy, domestic violence, mental health issues and others.
The Hub then shifts to pre-emption mode. A chronically absent student with bad parenting issues could be met with a door-knock from school and social services workers along with a referral to a parent aide, for example. Or a bullied teen could get referred to mediated counselling alongside his bullies. The goal is to tackle the problem within 24 to 48 hours, ensuring that high-risk residents get help before they end up in a jail or an emergency room or a morgue.
In Prince Albert, the change came out of crisis. "I was the chief who went from 2,900 arrests to almost 8,000 over eight years," Mr. McFee said in an interview with The Globe and Mail late last year. "We got tough. It wasn't working."
Mr. McFee worked with Norm Taylor, a criminal-justice consultant who advises both the Saskatchewan and Ontario govenrments. Mr. Taylor had been researching the future of policing for the Saskatchewan government and concluded that the province didn't have a policing problem, but instead "a marginalized people problem," he said.
The two introduced a Hub in Prince Albert just three months after observing a similar setup in Scotland that's been deployed to dramatic effect. From 2010 to 2013, Prince Albert's crime rate fell by 21 per cent, before jumping back up by around 11 per cent in 2014.
"Over time, I'm quite confident we can pull 30 to 40 per cent of police calls out of the system," Mr. McFee said. "And instead, get these people the help they need so that, hopefully, they never return to the system."
The Moneyball portion – or predictive analytics – of the strategy comes into play when the Hubs pass their intervention data to a secondary team, called a COR, or Centre of Responsibility. The COR analyzes the data for trends and gaps in service. In Prince Albert, for example, the COR found that responding to alcohol abuse among high schoolers was difficult because of an absence of stats on the problem, and teamed with a group of academics to rectify the problem.
"We've Moneyballed what drives the system," said Mr. McFee, who has hired a team of economists, mathematicians and other number-crunchers since taking the deputy minister job in 2012. "Justice for the large part is predictable. If it's predictable, then it should be preventable."
Many jurisdictions are following Saskatchewan's lead, but none more enthusiastically than Ontario, which has established Hubs in 30 communities.
Part of the attraction to the Saskatchewan model is savings. Police costs and downstream justice costs are ballooning. If high-paid officers can divert some of their non-emergency workload away from the justice system altogether, fewer police will be needed and costs will come down. Or so the theory goes.
"If you reduce demands on the system, you start bending the cost curve," said Yasir Naqvi, Ontario's Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. "Part of this is about reducing demand for police so we can free up police resources for solving crime, investigating crimes and preventing crimes from happening."
Complications appear in applying the model to small towns such as La Loche, a community of around 3,000 people with one of the highest crime-severity indexes in the country. Overworked police and other social-services workers often can't find time to meet twice a week. What's more, the kind of specialized expertise often needed around a Hub table – from psychiatrists, say, or gang-exit experts – is unavailable.
A third plank of the Saskatchewan model could help. Last July, the government established a non-profit research group that will focus on addressing broad provincial crime trends. One of their early projects is a video conferencing system designed to help small-town Hubs get immediate access to outside expertise. "It's similar to Telehealth," said Mr. Taylor. "In some remote communities, the local cop, nurse and teacher could now get instant involvement from outside experts."
Only five years old, the Saskatchewan model is still evolving. Progress shouldn't be measured by a single tragedy. "Our model is not perfect, but it's getting better and better all the time through constant tweaking," said Mr. McFee before the La Loche shooting. "What we have to protect against is the odd bad thing dictating bad policing or bad law. We're going to have anomalies. We always will."