A pilot project aims to empower officers not to make arrests.
Four teams, made up of two police officers and a social worker, are patrolling 11, 12, 13 and 14 Divisions as part of the Street Outreach pilot program with an aim to connect people with food, housing, mental health and addiction programs.
“We’re here to address the root cause of criminal behaviour, so that they don’t commit those offences again,” says Constable Ian Weir who has coordinated the project on behalf of 13 Division and wrote the original funding request to the provincial government. “We want to address the needs of the vulnerable members of the community.”
It’s an age-old problem for police officers everywhere, arresting the same people for the same offences, knowing that a few days or weeks in jail won’t likely be a lasting solution to the problem – often a mental illness that causes them to act out, a drug addiction fed through theft or likely a combination of the two.
He says that the program aims to prevent crime, satisfy local complaints of aggressive panhandling and drug trafficking and, most importantly, help people be positive members of society. A recent rash of drug overdoses had police looking for ways to address drug addiction.
He says the officers chosen for the assignment know many of the people who could use their help, because they have served as Community Response Unit officers on foot and bike patrol in the same neighbourhoods.
“These officers are out there every day, they know who the people are that need help, where they frequent and how they spend their days,” says Weir, of the experience that officers bring to the program to identify those who need help most.
The pilot, bounded by Highway 401 and Lawrence Ave to the north, the Humber River to the west, Lake Ontario to the south, and Spadina Avenue/Bathurst Street to the east, runs until March 31, 2016. Police are accepting referrals from community members via the Street Outreach webpage.
“We want to sit down and have that conversation with them,” says Weir, of their initial goal of identifying how officers and social workers can help.
Giovanni (Johnny) Pompilli was ready to talk.
Johnny is a recovering drug addict who is looking for ways to get his life back together. 13 Division’s Street Outreach team, made up of John Howard Society outreach worker Joanne Amos and Constables Jack Porter and Mike Budd, were out one afternoon, at a St. Clair and Dufferin Sts. coffee shop, helping Pompilli make a recovery plan.
“This is the best thing that has ever happened, to tell you the truth,” says Pompili, as he sips on his coffee. “I was not in the greatest state of mind and, when I saw that the officers were helping people instead of arresting them, I thought it was a good thing.”
Having Amos from the John Howard Society is a way in for Budd and Porter to get talking to people who may need assistance.
Amos is a friendly face for those familiar with John Howard. The same people are familiar with Budd and Porter too – but often in negative circumstances.
Pompilli saw Budd and Porter with Amos and realized the trio were working together to help people.
Instead of running away, he approached them.
“I saw them with her and I know who the officers were, so I went to them and Mike said to me ‘we are here to help, not arrest you,’” says Pompilli.
Amos, along with Budd and Porter, helped Pompilli with his housing paperwork and out of the street life and into other activities that keep him busy in the morning and away from his friends who still do hard drugs, so that he can start clean again.
“I’ve been content since, I suffer from depression but I am now participating in other things…it helps me. And I want the help,” he says.
“Before, instead of help, I would turn to drugs,” explains Pompilli, who worked as a plumber before turning to break-and-enters to feed his addiction. “And then, I would find myself with same problems and in an even worse position and end up in jail again.”
We see a lot of the same faces over and over again. Our aim is to stop that cycle.
Budd and Porter want to be approachable. The two don’t wear uniforms when they go out two times a week, with Amos. Often their first question is ‘How can we help you?’
They offer assistance in many other ways, from finding safe beds to putting individuals directly in touch with social services and nonprofit agencies who are committed to helping them with their problems.
The teams are provided with the resources necessary to assist in creating an initial relationship with the person, things like coffee money, cigarettes, TTC tokens, and warm clothing. From these relationships, the teams hope to be able to build trust in order to help channel the individuals towards appropriate supports and treatment.
Both Budd and Porter volunteered for the outreach position.
“There is human value to it,” says Porter.
Budd agrees, saying that “we can’t arrest our way out of the situation.”
The program is also a way for police, social services and the community to start building better relationships, says Budd, who thinks it will increase the positive interaction between the agencies and police – often a cold relationship in the past.
Amos says she was hesitant to work with the police but her outlook has changed completely.
“I had preconceived notions but it turned out to be much different than I expected. I thought I was going to get some buttoned-up, cold-hearted people… it’s not that at all. They are genuine people who care about their clients,” says Amos, who hopes the pilot will become permanent.
Weir says that police officers know all too well that arrests are not the only way to make the community safer.
“We see a lot of the same faces over and over again,” says Weir. “Our aim is to stop that cycle. We want to help people before they are in dire straits.”