In the fall of 2020, the Toronto Police Service (TPS) began redeveloping the Coach Officer Program to ensure that Coach Officers, who are the first to mentor new officers on the road, had the skills and resources required to provide the best training.
These changes included a formal application/nomination process, leadership training, course redevelopment, an evaluation portal that increased feedback between coach and probationary constables and the creation of the Community Experience Program (CEP).
The CEP was co-developed and led by community members and agencies that support marginalized communities and youth for both Coach Officers and the new Officers they are mentoring. Following COVID-19 health and safety protocols, the participating agencies offered in-person and remote discussions and activities to introduce the new officers to the services and supports they provide to these communities.
Staff and program participants provided presentations and discussions that offered the new officers information that helped expand their perspectives on issues involving police and marginalized communities.
Staff Superintendent Randy Carter, of Community Safety Command Field Services, said the CEP was developed to provide new recruits with a deeper understanding of the communities they serve.
“The training also gives officers a better understanding of the histories with police in a society as a whole. It also gives them the opportunity to develop community specific partnerships and to see how this knowledge can help them better serve these communities in a crisis or emergency,” he said. “This is also something the public told us they wanted to see as part of police reform directed by our Board in August 2020.”
I think it’s important that we understand policing through a community lens as opposed to an enforcement one
In his address to the new officers who participated in the start of the program, Carter said they will be called to scenes when something bad has happened.
“It unfortunately will not take you too long to encounter members of our racialized and marginalized communities at these events both as victims and suspects,” he pointed out. “Over the past week, there have been homicides, robberies, stabbings, carjackings and firearms offences where the suspects and accused were from those communities. These investigations are intense and memorable because of the crime, but also the impact on the community.
“We do not want these calls and investigations to be the first source of information you draw on when developing ideas about these communities. Stereotypes form in all of us and these can be negative. If you don’t have regular contact with members of these communities outside policing, you will have nothing or little of substance to balance your views. We want this week’s experiences to begin to give you a positive picture of what these communities are and how they support each other, what they are going through and how they see you as a cop in Toronto.”
Carter encouraged the officers to challenge themselves and be opened-minded when engaging the public.
“These agencies believe that police can be part of the safety and reduction of crime in the neighbourhoods they live, work, visit and play in,” he added. “They want police in their communities. However, they want fair, emphatic and unbiased interactions. These agencies hope that by increasing your awareness, knowledge and understanding of their communities and the challenges they face, you will start with positive imagery and be better equipped to provide equitable service.”
Const. Emily Simpson, who was among the officers in the first cohort, said the training was a great opportunity to see different perspectives.
“It’s a great entry program into policing,” said Simpson who is assigned to 31 Division. “I think it’s important that we understand policing through a community lens as opposed to an enforcement one. It was nice to go out into the city and see the different resources that are available for members of the community and programs that we can refer members to.”
During the four-day program, new officers met with organizations including, John Howard Society , Gerstein Crisis Centre (GCC), Black Creek Community Health, Delta Family Resource Centre, Stride and the Jamaican Canadian Association.
GCC offers 24/7 telephone support, in-person mobile crisis team, community support referrals, substance use crisis management, follow-up and access to short-term crisis beds. GCC is also collaborating with the TPS on a 12-month pilot project to provide crisis services to those calling 911 wanting mental health support.
Simpson said the visit to the Gerstein Centre was her highlight.
“This program really resonated with me,” said the former civilian member and District Special Constable. “The more knowledgeable you are as a police officer going into the field, the better you are going to be. Learning is an ongoing process and it was such a good thing to get such information thrown in your direction.”
The new officers participated in activities at Black Creek Community Health, which provides health care services and programs to vulnerable populations and the Delta Youth Justice Program that helps Black and racialized youth navigate the complex justice system.
They also met with support workers from Stride and the Substance Abuse Program for African-Canadian & Caribbean Youth (SAPACY) that provides community specific supports for youth and adults struggling with mental health and addiction issues.
Since 2005, Donna Alexander has been a social worker with the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health (CAMH) that runs the SAPACY.
She did a virtual session with the officers.
“It was really an exchange of what they are doing, how they are taught and what we as mental health providers think is helpful to improve the experience for our clients,” Alexander said.
“Because I work primarily with Black and racialized clients and we know their vulnerability in terms of what happens at times when families try to access services, I have a vested interest in working with Toronto Police to increase their capacity to provide service that is less traumatizing for clients.”
Community activist Louis March, facilitated a discussion around gun violence, how it evolves and the Zero Gun Violence Movement that has partnerships with many agencies that support community efforts to eliminate gun violence in our communities.
“The Zero Gun Violence Movement has a street-level perspective on relationships between Black youth, in particular, and police,” he said. “We have seen attempts made by police to change and we have noticed it through their Neighbourhood Officer program. I did this presentation because there seems to be an attempt by the Toronto Police Service to improve relations."
The main thing about policing is getting engaged with the community and serving them
Sgt. Peter Morris, of the Emergency Task Force, spoke to the new officers about how they can apply the knowledge they gleaned throughout the four days of community experiences to better assist members of racialized communities should they encounter them in a state of crisis.
Representatives from the Black community and the LGBTQ2S+ community also discussed the history between these communities and the police, the impact of intergenerational trauma and moving forward.
For Const. Selorm Dzikunu, growing up in the Chalkfarm and Jane & Finch communities, provided him with a lived experience of the some of the topics covered during the CEP.
“For most of my colleagues, I believe their mindset of policing is going out into the community and enforcing the law,” said the Ghanaian-born officer who migrated to Canada in 2004 and lived in subsidized housing. “The main thing about policing is getting engaged with the community and serving them. It was an amazing four-day experience and I think all recruits should take part in it.”
The CEP is just one way TPS is changing the experience for new officers. The program has expanded across the Service and is ensuring that coach officers and new officers alike have the support and resources they need to provide great service to their communities.
Coach Officers are the first point of contact for recruits after graduation.
“Some of the areas of redevelopment are the way coach officers are selected and the leadership training they were provided to ensure they are equipped to lead, coach and mentor in the most meaningful way,” said Carter. “Another area is the new evaluation portal that helps recruits and their coach officer track their progress, provide the recruits with regular feedback and track progress plans.”
Simpson’s coach officer is Const. Seth Rietkoetter of 31 Division ‘A’ platoon.
“He has been with the Service for nearly 15 years and is very knowledgeable when it comes to the Division and policing,” she said. “I am in a very diverse community with many good people. Through the coach officer, I am getting a better feel of how I should be interacting with the community in a way that’s not intimidating. You can’t learn that at the College. It’s good to have someone at your side that you can learn from and lean on.”
The new Coach Officer Development & Enhancement (CODE) program offers additional tools to support coach officers, including training, streamlined evaluations and leadership development.
The pilot group of coach officers took part in a four-day leadership development course.
“I enjoyed it and liked that it was run outside TPS,” said Rietkoetter, who took the Coach Officer course in 2010 and has coached two officers at his previous assignment in 14 Division. “Back then, it was just standard stuff talking about this is what we do and this is how we do it."
The new course allows for a broader look at policing.
“It was nice to have a non-police perspective. It gave me a better perspective of my strengths and weaknesses and how can apply what I learn to coaching.”