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What the rest of Canada can learn from Winnipeg’s new crime reduction strategy

Integrated social services and social development can help prevent crime

A version of this commentary appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, Yukon News and the Flin Flon Reminder

Rick Linden_Crime_000018028283SmallIn the recent federal throne speech, the Harper government proposed a law to ensure that people like Paul Bernardo will never get out of jail. Sounds good  except the truth is that he, and others like him, will almost certainly never get out of jail under current laws. In other words, it was nothing more than symbolic legislation that plays well to the general public.

Wouldn’t it be better if the government put its energies behind supporting initiatives that would actually make Canadians safer? Communities across the country are not waiting on the federal government, and are doing just that. Winnipeg is a case in point.

Between 1991 and 2010, the crime rate in Canada’s nine largest cities declined by a whopping 50 percent. In Winnipeg, the reduction was only 25 percent, much of which was due to an 85 percent decline in car theft. Violent crime and community safety have remained significant challenges for the city of Winnipeg.

But a new crime reduction strategy called ‘Block by Block,’ could significantly change this.

The Province of Manitoba, the City of Winnipeg, and the Winnipeg Police Service have developed partnerships with a broad range of social agencies and community groups that will establish one of North America’s most comprehensive community safety and wellness initiatives, literally tackling the issues ‘Block by Block.’

Three factors give Block by Block a good chance of being successful: integrated social service delivery; crime prevention through social development; and a new policing strategy.

First, Block by Block focuses on prevention and early intervention, modeled on the city of Prince Albert’s Community Mobilization program. Prince Albert has reduced its once-soaring crime rates by over 40 percent, and has also seen reductions in emergency hospital admissions and social service referrals.

Winnipeg’s program will bring together a broad range of agencies to deliver services to those at highest risk and in greatest need. Consider a 3 a.m. police response to a troublesome party house. The police called EMS to take an unconscious woman to the hospital. The police supervisor then had to decide what to do with three girls at the party in their early teens. No social agencies were open that late at night and he didn’t want to detain them because their only offense was underage drinking. He spent considerable time trying to locate a responsible adult to look after them. This call involved three police cars and two EMS vehicles and police had no means of following up to ensure the same problems didn’t arise at the same house the next day.

Block by Block will enable the police to work with other agencies to deal with problems like this one. Service delivery will be coordinated through a ‘Hub,’ a group including community agencies, child welfare, health, addictions, education, police and probation. This group will coordinate services to individuals and families. The Hub’s goal is to intervene at an early stage before problems become serious.

Secondly, Block by Block will focus on crime prevention through social development. The LiveSAFE initiative is focused on improved housing, better access to wellness services, neighbourhood beautification and improved infrastructure.

Finally, a new policing strategy will better serve the area. The Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) will work with the community to deal with the issues underlying criminal behaviour because they know they cannot arrest their way out of the city’s problems. The WPS are part of the Hub and are partners in LiveSAFE.

The WPS is also implementing a Smart Policing Initiative, focusing on hot spots  places with a high incidence of crime and disorder  and on high-risk individuals, rather than simply responding to calls for service. This approach has been proven effective elsewhere.

Reduced crime is one of the anticipated outcomes of Block by Block, but there may be other benefits, such as reduced emergency hospital admissions, reduced family service referrals, better educational outcomes and higher employment rates.

Other communities are implementing similar initiatives that will have real impact on safety. The federal government can carry on with its window dressing, while communities across the country are rolling up their sleeves and getting things done.

Rick Linden is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and teaches criminology at the University of Manitoba. He is also the Chair of the Manitoba Police Commission.

November 2013

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