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Incoming Edmonton police chief’s policing strategy spreads across North America

In September 2012, Samson Cree Nation leaders got an urgent call.

Local schools were “filled with young children dressed up in gang colours,” Chief Vernon Saddleback recalled.

Gangs were terrorizing the community 90 kilometres south of Edmonton with drive-by shootings, break-ins and violence.

Residents were demanding to know how the band planned to deal it.

The situation spurred Saddleback — then a newly elected councillor — and the band to adopt a radically different policing approach.

Now, a key part of the community’s safety strategy,  it’s known as the Hub model — a multi-agency intervention that mobilizes social services for those in need before harm is done.

One of the architects of the Hub model is incoming Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee, who was police chief in Prince Albert, Sask., when the strategy was pioneered in Canada in 2011.

“The Hub model saves lives,” says a paper co-authored by McFee in 2014. “It connects people at risk to the services that can help them, when they need them most. It stops crime before it happens.”

As McFee leaves his latest post as deputy minister of Corrections and Policing in Saskatchewan for his new Edmonton position in February, the Hub’s expansion throughout Saskatchewan and beyond is noteworthy.

chief vernon saddleback

Samson Cree Nation Chief Vernon Saddleback is helping nearby communities adopt the Hub community safety model. (Samson Cree Nation)

The model is used by about 140 locations in North America including Charlottetown, Ottawa, Toronto and Surrey.

The program is also quietly spreading in a pocket of central Alberta under Samson Cree and Maskwacis RCMP leadership. Proponents say the Hub model is among the initiatives improving safety in their community.

RCMP figures show an 11-per-cent decrease in the severity of crimes in Maskwacis from 2016 to 2017. The number of charges laid is declining. On-reserve suicides at Samson Cree are down, with one this year compared to nine in 2015.

Rather than targeting youth associated with gangs, the Hub model focused on assisting their families. Instead of a culture of silence that once allowed gang violence to fester, residents now call police, said Saddleback. Hub members or a mobile mental health unit are dispatched to those in need.

“Nowadays it’s a different energy — people just feel safer and happier,” said Saddleback. “People are responding to try and make our community a safer and happier place to live.”

Nowadays it’s a different energy — people just feel safer and happier– Samson Cree Nation Chief Vernon Saddleback

In an interview with CBC, McFee extolled the benefits of the Hub model but said he needed to look at existing programs, compare the data and talk to people before deciding if it’s a fit for Edmonton.

“It’s pretty hard that it’s probably not a fit,” said McFee. “It’s more, is the community ready for it? And if they’re ready for it, who do we need to engage at that table?”

In February 2011, Prince Albert police launched the Hub model in response to escalating crime rates and police calls, and a recognition that enforcement alone was not the answer. The strategy was inspired by a program used in Glasgow, Scotland.

Within months, crimes against people and property in Prince Albert were down by at least 10 per cent. There were fewer calls for service. Other communities that have since adopted the model have tailored it to suit their circumstances but the formula stays the same.

How it works

Twice a week, representatives from community agencies,  police, child welfare, schools and other groups discuss cases around a “Hub table” for 90 minutes.

Information is shared, but some details are withheld, where necessary, to protect privacy.

The goal is to offer services within 24 to 48 hours to reduce risk factors such as substance abuse, mental health issues or family violence.  It often involves knocking on someone’s door or meeting with family members.

In Saskatchewan, McFee said, 81 per cent of police calls for service don’t lead to criminal charges. He suspects it’s similar in Edmonton.

“That right there tells you that we’re asking the police to be the social worker, the mental health worker and everything else,” he said.

It’s way more advantageous to the individual who needs the service and obviously it’s a heck of a lot more cost effective– Incoming Police Chief Dale McFee

The Hub takes people out of the justice system and puts them on the path to recovery while reducing demand for services. “It’s way more advantageous to the individual who needs the service and obviously it’s a heck of a lot more cost effective,” McFee said.

In Saskatchewan, the information is collected in a data base created with the Ministry of Justice and the University of Saskatchewan to shape policy and improve service delivery. Government staff support Hub tables by troubleshooting and fielding questions.

“At the end of the day you can’t fix what you don’t know,” said McFee. “So we use that data proactively to figure out how we can actually start to focus on the right thing.”

He emphasized the approach is not about being soft on crime, but rather being smart about community safety. “We need to put the bad people in jail and not the poor souls,” McFee told Edmonton media in November.

“If your only response is the justice system, what you tend to do is you don’t do a very good job of sorting intake and you overload your justice system.”

Reduced demand for services

In Edmonton, where the index that measures the severity of crime has remained higher than the national average for eight years, the police service collaborates with community partners on several programs that help divert people from the justice system.

The Heavy Users of Services (HUoS) program was introduced in 2013. An EPS analysis showed that clients, on average, have 64 per cent fewer visits to hospital emergency departments, 75 per cent fewer admissions to hospital, 84 per cent fewer inappropriate interactions with officers, according to an analysis by police.

edmonton police huos analysis

An Edmonton police analysis shows the change in interactions for an average person involved in the Heavy Users of Services program. (Edmonton Police Service)

Despite that, new criminal court cases have nearly doubled in Edmonton to 46,000 since 2012. Calls for public drunkenness and mental health issues are up this year by roughly seven per cent.

In December, city council approved an extra $75 million to hire 101 new officers.

Chad Nilson, a scholar at the University of Saskatchewan’s Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science and Justice Studies, studies the impact of Hub models in use.

chad nilson

Academic Chad Nilson says just five per cent of Hub clients refuse support. (Chad Nilson)

He developed the database now used by 100 Hubs across Canada, many of which he helped establish.

Nilson emphasized the Hub is a rapid intervention for people whose risk has drastically increased, not someone chronically at risk.

“Too often we wait until people are full into crisis and then our systems react. This is about getting individuals to those services sooner,” said Nilson. His research shows just five per cent of clients refuse support.

But he insists the model is not just for communities in crisis.

“To me your community’s desire to have a Hub should not be driven by any data,” said Nilson.”It should be driven by the desire to do better.”

‘A great fit for every community’

A version of the Hub is being embraced by three bands next to Samson Cree, the nearby communities of Ponoka and Wetaskiwin, as well as Enoch Cree Nation.

All have received training from Maskwacis RCMP and Saddleback.

Maskwacis RCMP Const. Morgan Kyle said while some prioritize the targeting of criminal behaviour, the root cause may be as simple as struggling to put food on the table.

Through the Hub, the team can ask families what help they need. The ability to share information among agencies that have traditionally operated in silos allows a full picture to emerge, Kyle said.

Kyle helped create the local training program for interested communities that couldn’t afford the official Hub training.

“We were asked to put together a training program and offer it to communities for free because we see the value in the Hub program and we don’t want finances to be limiting communities,” Kyle told CBC. “I just think it’s a great fit for every community.”


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