Chief of the Guelph Police Service Gord Cobey says the downtown resource officer program, which launched in March 2020 as a pilot project, is not going anywhere.
The unit consists of four officers and one downtown liaison officer assigned to patrol the area inside of Woolwich, Wellington, Norfolk and Gordon streets.
It was formed in response to growing safety issues downtown, but also to help address drug use and homelessness that has been seen in the area.
While making arrests and enforcing the law is part of the role, the focus is more about building relationships with businesses, organizations, residents and visitors downtown.
Most of the work is done on foot but they can also be seen on bike patrols or in police cruisers.
The program was made permanent in January 2021, but on Thursday, the Guelph Police Services Board was given an update on how the unit has been functioning after 18 months.
The board heard that while there is still a lot of work to do downtown, the program is being looked at as a great success so far.
“This will remain as a permanent fixture foundational piece of the service,” Cobey said.
The board heard that for the most part, frontline officers have had positive feedback from the businesses and people they speak with, and there have been very few complaints about the officers who patrol downtown.
Mayor Cam Guthrie, who sits on the police board, said he has heard great things about the unit and how it has been keeping the community safe.
“How you interact as well with everybody who is requiring help or just lending a hand or directing people to the right resources that they may need,” Guthrie said to Sgt. Dustan Howe, who oversees the program.
Howe said so far, 12 officers have rotated through the four positions since it launched and another four are about to come on board.
Const. Mark O’Connell has been the only downtown liaison officer during the project, but the well-known face around the area has been off the job since being injured in a car crash in early August.
Howe said along with bringing four new officers in, they are trying to identify a replacement for O’Connell who has played the lead role for the officers joining the unit.
Part of their training involved spending time with O’Connell on shift and getting to know the area, local outreach organizations and businesses.
In 2020, about 680 arrests were made downtown and more than 3,800 charges were laid. For this year, Howe reported that they are on pace for about 750 arrests with a similar number of charges.
The numbers include just drug and criminal charges and not traffic tickets, although Howe said road safety is an important component of downtown safety.
The service has also recovered several stolen vehicles and other property, and at least $30,000 in drugs and suspected drug money have been seized, Howe said.
He also added that while there are five officers who have a focus on downtown, the unit receives support from several other units, responding to calls or proactive patrols in the area.
As for what’s next, Howe said there is room for the unit to improve.
“Identifying what is best for the community, including those experiencing homelessness and equity-seeking individuals is paramount for the downtown,” Howe said.
“Discussions have been ongoing how best to serve members of the public. We recognize the issues facing the downtown are complicated and they are multi-faceted and we know other jurisdictions are facing similar issues.”
He said the multi-faceted problems need multi-faceted solutions.
He also added that keeping downtown safe has to be a collaborative approach between the service and the entire downtown community, including the Guelph Community Health Centre, the Downtown Guelph Businesses Association and outreach organizations such as the Drop-In Centre and HOPE House.
He pointed to the Welcoming Streets Initiative that sees an outreach worker support business owners by responding to situations that do not require the help of police. The worker also engages with vulnerable residents to ensure they are connected to the services available.
Chief Cobey added that just having officers present and visible has made a difference.
“Some of the things we may not be able to capture in traditional stats but just being visible and seeing our members downtown really means a lot to the downtown community,” Cobey said.
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