Future of ACTION unit questioned
High-profile division has been controversial, even within the police service, since its inception
What is the future of the high-profile Hamilton police ACTION unit?
On Friday four officers were found not guilty of obstructing justice and fabricating evidence in relation to allegations they wrote fake tickets targeting vulnerable people downtown.
During the ruling, Ontario Court Justice Pamela Borghesan said she was suspicious some tickets may have been falsified, but ultimately found it wasn’t proven.
Yet despite the officer’s individual exonerations, the Hamilton police service and the ACTION (Addressing Crime Trends in Our Neighbourhoods) unit specifically, did not come out unscathed.
A repeated point throughout the trial has been the question of why vulnerable individuals downtown — referred to as “regulars” — are ticketed so often. Court heard repeatedly that these men and women do not pay the tickets and it doesn’t change their behaviour.
“The futility of the exercise is apparent,” Borghesan said in court.
While police have long been reticent to admit to using quotas, court heard during the ACTION ticket trial that officers were expected to generate 100 tickets a year.
Outside court, lawyer Gary Clewley, who regularly defends police officers including two at this trial, took that argument a step further.
“What strategy? It’s a Band-Aid that got peeled back,” he said of ACTION. “This needs to be re-examined.”
Clewley explained the ticketing, which is a significant part of what ACTION officers do, as simply “moving people around site to site with no deterrent to reoffend.” It doesn’t stop the behaviour, such as drinking in public or panhandling: we’re “back where we were using valuable resources.”
ACTION has been controversial, even within the police service, since its inception in 2010.
With their bright yellow jackets, they patrol on foot and by bike with the goal of being highly visible.
It was created by then-police Chief Glenn De Caire to combat high crime downtown. And to that end there is a measured success, crime is largely down — although crime is down everywhere — and the unit is lauded by downtown business owners.
But it has also been criticized for taking away frontline officers and resources, and for it’s focus on petty crimes.
And there is no indication current Chief Eric Girt will make any changes.
“We will remain the same, there is no indication of change,” said Hamilton police Supt. Mike Worster, who commands the community mobilization divisions, including ACTION. “Our chief is a supporter.” In an interview before the verdict, Worster said he understands the argument about the futility of repeatedly ticketing the vulnerable and says that’s why he tries to educate officers about their discretion.
“There is no point in handing out five tickets to some guy day in and day out ... it’s part of the education piece, are there other things we can do?” he said, later adding, “I’m all about discretion.”
While acknowledging court proceedings Friday, Hamilton police say they cannot comment as the matter is ongoing.
A fifth officer is being tried separately, and all of the officers still face possible discipline under the Police Services Act.
Hamilton Police Association president Clint Twolan notes what he called the “ongoing controversy” of the ACTION unit.
“I make no bones about the fact that we could use more officers on the front line,” he said, standing outside court after the verdict.
He noted that the team does have some value and that units can be redeployed to other areas when needed, but said he still believes the officers could often be put to better use.
The real issue, Twolan said, is that police deployed to make the downtown safer are being tasked with what is actually a social problem, not a legal one.
“When you apply the police to it, we will respond in a policing manner, the way we’re trained to do,” he said.
While officers are encouraged to exercise their discretion, this still often means making arrests and issuing tickets.
Hamilton police have also taken great steps in recent years with how they work with people struggling with mental illness or in crisis.
The Crisis Response Unit includes the Mobile Rapid Crisis Response Unit, which pairs trained officers with mental-health professionals to respond to 911 calls of people in crisis, and the Social Navigator Program, which through a referral process helps divert people away from court to social service agencies.
In 2015 the Hamilton police ACTION unit issued 3,041 provincial offence notice tickets and laid 614 criminal charges. In total since 2010 that’s 26,357 tickets and 5,253 criminal charges.
Through the social navigator program there were 156 “navigations” in 2015 and 429 in total since 2011.
Hamilton police would not provide more recent numbers before they are presented in an annual report to the police board.
A big part of the internal and political criticism of ACTION has been its focus on patrolling specific quadrants in the downtown core.
While the unit has always been available in an emergency, such as canvassing after a homicide, during the year-end report presentation last year the service formally agreed it allows officers to leave the downtown.
Under Worster’s leadership, ACTION officers are trained to be experts in canvassing and have become the go-to unit for this work after major crimes.
And yet, Worster points out it’s also impossible to measure what crimes or problems may have been prevented by the mere presence of ACTION officers.
“The thing that’s hard to capture is how many crimes do they deter by just their mere presence.”