Lethbridge Police Chief suggests new "Downtown Watch" program at CIC meeting

By Lara Fominoff @LaraFominoff on Twitter
September 10, 2018 - 5:37pm

LETHBRIDGE - Rather than simply hiring more police officers, Lethbridge Police Chief Rob Davis presented several options for improving safety in the Downtown Lethbridge area at Monday's (Sept. 10) Community Issues Committee meeting.

Davis mentioned potential initiatives like a police auxiliary program, a First Nations focused program called Bear Clan, a revitalized Neighborhood Watch, or an enhanced Crime Stoppers program.

But what he concentrated his presentation on, was an initiative that Winnipeg already has in place, called the "Downtown Watch Program."

The program consists of 25 full-time employees and hundreds of volunteers looking for work experience, or who are considering a career in law enforcement.

Volunteers and paid members have their own highly visible and identifiable uniforms with large, reflective lettering, and receive specialized training in occupational health and safety, CPR, workplace harassment and bullying, non-violent crisis intervention, report-writing and note-taking, First Nations cultural awareness and mental health awareness as well.

Davis told the committee that a potential "Watch" program in Lethbridge would improve "perceived safety" in the downtown area.

"I'll get the calls all the time about somebody's concerned for their safety because they see a homeless person on a street bench. I would suggest that doesn't mean that they're unsafe, but they feel unsafe. So, having a body, whether it be the Watch or a Class 6 Constable or a regular officer you know, those bodies being on the street will help that perception of safety."

If the Downtown Watch program gets the green light, he explained that there would be hundreds of students in the Criminal Justice Program at Lethbridge College who are often looking for volunteer opportunities that don't exist right now, who could become part of the program.

Once trained, program members would primarily be on foot patrol, but could also use bikes, weather permitting, and would carry two-way radios to communicate directly with police.

"The (Criminal Justice) program from my understanding is increasing in numbers every year. So, you look at that, you look at the addictions program, you look at the social work program at the University. Like, we've got a great pool of people to draw from who one, need volunteer experience...to graduate. But two, they need that resume experience. So, after they get that diploma or degree they want something on their resume to be appealing to a potential employer."

Davis suggested that during summer months, a number of students could also be hired and paid as Downtown Watch Ambassadors. The ballpark cost of training, uniforms and salaries for doing so could be around $200,000 to $250,000.

As for safety concerns, Davis cited not only the Winnipeg program, but special constables, transit police, housing authority police and other auxiliaries where those other than police are augmenting public safety through volunteer programs or other service deliveries across the country.

Mayor Chris Spearman asked Davis aside from funding, whether there was anything Council could do to assist police and any volunteers with things like aggressive panhandling or open drug use by potentially passing new bylaws.

Davis told the mayor it was something to be discussed in camera, however if bylaws concerning open drug use especially were implemented, it might equate to a "move along" law, rather than giving police the authority to arrest violators.

He also cautioned the committee that if the issues in the downtown were resolved, they might simply move to neighboring communities. But then that's where the rest of the LPS would take over. 

"If the police own it, then we're not bound to stay in the downtown. We have an obligation to the entire city, so we can staff appropriately to constantly be displacing it."

Davis is hoping that if funding is approved during Operating Budget deliberations in November, that volunteers can be recruited for the spring-time and fully trained in time for the summer of 2019.

"So this is a priority in our 2019-2022 budget ask. This is one of the big-ticket items we're looking for," said Davis. "It's something that we have the...pool to draw on from the college and university. This is priority to get this into this budget cycle."

The CIC voted unanimously to receive the presentation as information, and to refer it to budget deliberations in November. 

City of Lethbridge hosting two interactive sessions on operating budget priorities

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