A Lesson In Community Policing In The Beach

As always, Gene Domagala is the perfect person to make connections. With the date for my photo exhibition rapidly approaching and the need to finalize my articles and get the photos ready, I had not planned to do any further interviews, but Gene suggested that one organization could not be missing from my article series about the Beach: Toronto Police Service 55 Division, an organization with whom all the special events organizers work regularly. In his words 55 Division is extremely supportive of the Beach and a very positive force in the community.

Gene made a phone call to the station, and within minutes of the phone call I hopped in my car to drive to Dundas and Coxwell Avenues to meet the officers at 55 Division. Gene introduced me to Superintendent Wayne Peden, the head of the station and after introducing the Celebrate Toronto project Superintendend Peden started to give me a general overview of 55 Division. He explained that the policing area of 55 Division extends from the Don River in the west and to Victoria Park Avenue in the east, and from Danforth Avenue in the north to Lake Ontario in the south.

Superintendent Peden added that the police play a critical role in all the public events in the Beach, including the Beaches Jazz Festival, the Easter Parade and the Ashbridges Bay Fireworks. He used to work in this area in the 1980s and was just transferred back to this station last year. According to Superintendent Peden the Beach is a very safe area, with the main concerns being traffic and parking. He described the Beach as an excellent place to live and work. Many police offers want to work at this station, and Superintendent Peden enjoys his new location.

55 Division has about 235 employees including front line officers, detectives and investigative offers as well as community response officers who work with the community to resolve issues. Examples could include barking dogs, or driveway disputes, or teenagers that might be up to mischief. The idea is to resolve issues before they become problems.

During big events 55 Division officers work with the organizing committees of the respective events to ensure that the festival or the parade are going to run smoothly with minimal inconvenience to the locals. During major events for example, all the main streets north and south of Queen Street East have to be blocked off, and this is 55 Division’s responsibility. Once the roads are closed, the organizers take over and handle things from there.

Superintendent Peden started to fill me in on some of the community issues that are going on in 55 Division: from volleyball programs for teenagers from at-risk communities to school safety and anti-bullying education programs, officers from 55 Division are involved in a wide variety of community endeavours about which I would shortly learn more. The Superintendent added that his station has a very good working relationship with the community and the politicians in the area. 55 Division strives to provide a strong visible presence and to be recognized as an integral part of the community.

As he had to go, Superintendent Peden handed me over to Sergeant John Spanton who was going to explain things to me I more detail. He explained that there are several different units within 55 Division: a Primary Response Unit (PRU) that involves first line policing, emergency call response and apprehension of criminals. In addition community problems and outreach is handled by the Community Response Unit (CRU). Sergeant Spanton added that the division has one officer who is in charge of educational outreach in elementary schools; in addition two full-time officers handle the liaison with local high schools.

One of the important mandates of the Toronto Police Service is to encourage greater community integration. In addition a concerted effort has been made to attract more visible minorities and women into the police force. Sergeant Spanton explained that today many of the officers that are being hired are quite a bit older than what used to be the case in the past. The recruiting process takes life experience into consideration, and Toronto’s demographic diversity is increasingly being reflected in the faces of the Toronto Police Service. A wide variety of different ethnic and cultural groups are represented within Sergeant Spanton’s own team of officers. More officers with different language skills are being hired as well to be able to communicate with the various immigrant groups that call Toronto their home.

Another officer joined us: Regina La Borde is a 15-year veteran with the Toronto Police Force and now a full-time Elementary School Liason Officer. After many years of front-line policing she has become a full-time educator and crime prevention officer for 55 Division. Her curriculum includes topics such as traffic safety rules and not talking to strangers which are taught to children in junior and senior kindergarden. In Grade 2 safety and street proofing continues. Topics such as what to do when you get lost and telling your parents at all times where you are and what you are doing get covered. The curriculum for Grade 4 includes Internet safety and cyber-bullying. The concept of never talking to any strangers, even online, is emphasized as well.

In Grade 5 bullying becomes the key topic while drug awareness takes centre stage in Grade 6. Students learn about the different types of drugs, such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine or ecstasy; they also get educated about the drugs’ biochemical effects as well as about the legal consequences that can happen if they get involved in drug use. In Grade 8 the focus is on youth violence and gangs to prepare students for what they might be facing in high school. Materials such as videotapes and Powerpoint presentations are used to illustrate the concepts, and the entire curriculum is presently being updated to reflect current realities.