Saskatoon police chief appears again on yr of social points, new partnerships
When asked to sum up what 2022 was like for the Saskatoon Police Service, Chief Troy Cooper said there were three things that stood out: social disorder, new partnerships, and innovations that improve policing.
Homelessness, addictions and mental health issues all increased significantly in 2022, Cooper said.
It was perhaps the most significant and most consistent issue facing police this year, he added.
Cooper said his officers are getting better at responding to such calls, becoming more aware, sensitive and receiving more training around issues like trauma in an effort to learn how to better address complicated problems that might not always be crime-related.
“If it’s not a criminal issue, then why are the police attending?” Cooper asked, saying it’s a question the service has been grappling with.
“How do we reform police so that we have professional police (to) do duties that involve crime and are present when there’s violence, but have a partnership with somebody else to handle some of those calls that don’t recall fully-trained, professional police?”
The rising social issues plaguing Saskatoon aren’t problems police can solve alone, Cooper said. That’s why the police force is building relationships with various community organizations that provide support and alternatives in situations that might not be best addressed by traditional policing.
Cooper said the police service is attacking the challenges around social disorder through partnerships with the City of Saskatoon, the Saskatoon Fire Department, the Saskatoon Tribal Council and other groups. The chief said those partnerships are crucial, as it takes a community to respond to some of the issues.
The Saskatoon community, Cooper said, really impressed him in 2022.
“It’s been a really good year, I think, for learning those sorts of lessons, and I was amazed to see the community come together the way they have,” Cooper said.
“People really realized that this is all of our responsibility, (and) that we have to come together and combine the limited resources we have to have the best output.”
The police service has seen a number of new innovations in 2022, Cooper said, including the addition of alternate response officers (AROs), who make up a crucial part of the plan for police support in both downtown Saskatoon and the Fairhaven neighbourhood where the city’s emergency wellness centre is located.
Those officers work directly in the community, which means there is less likelihood of calls to police, and they primarily handle non-violent and non-criminal matters to free up the time of other officers.
Cooper said the program, which ran as a pilot in 2022, is working.
Regular officers are being called less frequently than before, Cooper said, and are spending less of their time on non-violent or behavioural issues. The addition of AROs keeps patrol officers from spending their time dealing with complex social issues, which can be both frustrating and time-consuming for them. Instead, the police service’s six full-time AROs have been able to use the trust and relationships they’ve developed within the community to help when they’re needed and suggest resources for those who are struggling.
As a result, Cooper said he’s heard stories where people have waited to find an ARO to approach rather than approaching a patrol officer, simply because they felt they could trust the ARO.
Alternate response officers do have the capacity for enforcement as well, Cooper noted, though data show that warnings are administered at double the rate of arrests or other enforcement actions like ticketing.
“If you don’t have a job, giving you a ticket isn’t going to be very useful, particularly if you don’t have a home,” Cooper explained. “So we’ve got to find alternate solutions, and the alternate response officers are one of those solutions.”
Cooper said he’d like to see even more AROs added to the police service in the year ahead.
There were other innovations in 2022 that the chief highlighted. Body-worn cameras were rolled out to officers in Saskatoon this year, and a new victim advocacy case review group undertook the responsibility of reviewing sexual violence cases handled by Saskatoon police.
The group, made up of experts in sexual abuse, works to analyze cases that did not result in criminal charges.
The chief said the group has already been able to suggest some changes to techniques and processes, and policy adjustments have already been implemented which Cooper believes have improved the police service’s handling of these sensitive files.
Major events of the year
One of the complex cases tackled by Saskatoon police this year was the mysterious disappearance of Dawn Walker. While that case is still before the courts, Cooper noted, he said it showed his officers’ ability to handle a very complicated case that crossed an international border.
“I think they did an incredible job, and I’m very proud of them,” the police chief said of the officers involved in the resource-heavy investigation.
Another case brought to a close by police this year was the alleged murder of Megan Gallagher and the recovery of her remains.
Cooper said an “incredible amount” of investigation went into finding the woman, who had been missing for two years. This year saw nine people charged in the case, and the discovery of Gallagher’s body.
Cooper said the most important part of the case was “to bring Megan home to her family.”
The Gallagher investigation presented several learning and growth opportunities for police, Cooper noted. Reflecting on the many interactions police had with Gallagher’s family throughout the course of their investigation, Cooper said there is hope that police can continue to interact more closely with families after a disappearance or death.
An Indigenous women’s advisory circle has discussed the case and the positives that came out of it, Cooper said, in the hope that every family going through such a struggle can feel heard by police like the Gallagher family said they were.
“They went through trauma. They went through the worst nightmare imaginable — the loss of a child — but we didn’t want to add more grief,” Cooper said. “We didn’t want to add to their despair.”
Describing the justice system as a “complicated, bumpy thing for most people,” Cooper said officers are also working on improving communication with families who might enter the investigation process with preconceived notions about police.
“Not everyone, when they’re going through that kind of tragedy, is ready to receive comfort and support from anywhere, specifically from the police. We have a job to do,” Cooper said.
“If we can find a way to soften that, so people who have to go through this can feel comfort instead of frustration, that’s what we want to do.”
The chief also noted that every homicide investigation Saskatoon police began in 2022 concluded with criminal charges.
The Saskatoon Wellness Centre
One initiative encompassed all three of Cooper’s 2022 themes: community partnerships, social disorder, and new innovations.
Saskatoon’s emergency wellness centre only opened shortly before the end of 2021 at its former location downtown. Unlike some, Cooper said he was never skeptical of the initiative, which was aimed at eliminating tent cities and homelessness, particularly through the winter.
Police knew what to expect from the opening of the new shelter, Cooper said, having previously worked closely with the group behind it, the Saskatoon Tribal Council.
Cooper highlighted the fact police were invited to be at the table for discussions on how the centre could operate most effectively. He said there were regular meetings about how many calls police were receiving about the shelter and its clients, what types of calls those were, and what could be done to improve things.
“We were part of it, and I think that helps us have some confidence in the outcome,” Cooper said, calling the tribal council a “responsible partner.”
Initially, he said, there were “a ton” of calls about the downtown wellness centre this year. But, he added, the tribal council’s willingness to listen to police suggestions and implement changes made all the difference this year.
With the centre relocated to the Fairhaven neighbourhood, Cooper said officers increased their visible presence in the area and will work to develop a long-term strategy to help keep everyone safe and mitigate the potential negative impacts of the centre on the community.
Other 2022 highlights
The Chief highlighted a case that he said “certainly plucked at my heartstrings.”
The case, he said, involved a Korean family that had gone through trauma. The only Korean-speaking police officer in Saskatchewan — a member of the Saskatoon Police Service — was able to intervene and take the children involved into his own home during the incident, until another family was able to travel to Saskatoon to take care of them.
“That kind of effort I got to see routinely throughout the year from our staff,” the Chief said. “Just having the children comforted by having somebody that they could connect to was important.”
The chief said one of the low points of the year was the significant number of overdose deaths in Saskatoon. While the issue doesn’t always involve police, he said it was certainly a dark part of the past year. Part of the issue, he said, is the increased access to the deadly opioid fentanyl, which has become more common across Canada in recent years.
An increase in overall call volumes — by about 13 per cent — also presented a challenge for Saskatoon police, the chief said.
That increase started in the middle of last year, just as restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic were being lifted, Cooper said, with the continuing through the summer.
This year saw about 9,000 more dispatch calls than 2021, with about half of those attributed to disturbances and suspicious persons.
When it comes to firearms, Cooper said the number of gun charges laid in 2022 were similar to the number from last year, though police did seize more firearms in 2022. About half of those were replica weapons like Airsoft guns and pellet pistols.
“It’s at an alarming level, for sure, because they’re easily concealed,” Cooper said, adding that street gangs in the city with access to firearms are likely to use them.
Officer mental health
Cooper said one of his professional resolutions for 2023 is to put people’s wellness at the front and centre of his priorities, ensuring people are taken care of in the areas they need.
“If there’s something we can help to take some stress away, we want to be able to do that,” Cooper said.
“If I have a regret, maybe, that’s something I can act on, when officers go through trauma, when they’re involved in a serious incident and they don’t feel supported from their mental health or their wellness, if there’s something we can do better then I regret that we haven’t done it.”
Cooper shared how proud he often is to read the reports prepared by officers after every 12-hour shift.
“(I) see the number of times that someone saved a life by using naloxone, including our alternate response officers. I see all the times we’ve managed to save someone who was suicidal on the bridge and managed to pull them to safety. Those sorts of things happen so frequently,” he said.
“Meeting officers who have gone through traumatic events makes me realize and recognize that we have to really be responsive to that.”
The year in crime statistics
Over the past year, Cooper said police didn’t see a rise in violent crimes, though there was an increase in property crimes of about 13 per cent.
“It’s hard to take something as significant as a homicide and boil it down to a statistic,” Cooper noted. “This is a family, this is an individual. Each one of them is really, really important.”
Thefts, and street robberies in particular, have gone up, Cooper said. Wherever there is an increased presence of drugs, the chief noted, there is always a corresponding increase in property crime.
Reported sexual assaults have decreased since last year, and Cooper said reports of sexual violence have also dropped from 2021. It’s not something he said he’d label as a trend just yet, because the reduction wasn’t a dramatic one, and the police chief noted that sexual incidents are often reported less frequently than other crimes. Cooper said it’s his goal to ensure that police aren’t acting as a barrier for those wishing to report a sexual crime.
Looking to 2023
The chief anticipated that next year will come with financial challenges, thanks to inflation and the goals of expanding programs like their body-worn cameras while preparing a two-year budget.
He said he’s looking forward to seeing more of the benefits of some of the programs police have been implementing — like alternate response officers, the air support unit and body-worn cameras — and having more officers return from police college training.
Cooper said he’s are also hoping to see a reduction in fentanyl numbers in Saskatoon next year, which would mean a reduced impact on vulnerable people, families and police resources.
With guns and gun control a hot topic as 2022 ends, Cooper said he isn’t sure at this point where Saskatoon police will land when it comes to the new federal gun legislation.
“We set our own priorities,” Cooper said.
While police could be required to enforce a buyback program should the legislation require it, the chief said he believes another organization would be more suited to carrying out such a regulatory task rather than tying up police resources.
In Saskatchewan, Cooper noted firearms used in crimes are largely stolen from law-abiding gun owners, and are usually shotguns or other long guns that are cut down in order to be more easily concealed.
He suggested that for a gun law to have an impact on crime in Saskatchewan, it should focus on safe storage.