Fu­ture of AC­TION unit ques­tioned

High-pro­file di­vi­sion has been con­tro­ver­sial, even within the po­lice ser­vice, since its in­cep­tion

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - NI­COLE O’REILLY nor­eilly@thes­pec.com 905-526-3199 | @Ni­coleatTheSpec

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.”

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