'Difficult to measure' street patrols at risk

By Charles Hamilton, The StarPhoenix January 9, 2014 - Saskatoon's downtown and Broadway business districts are urging city council to hire more street patrol officers as a decision on the pilot project looms.

The two-person community support officer teams - who act as both bylaw enforcement officers and outreach workers - have patrolled city streets since July, 2012. The uniformed officers are often dispatched by police at the request of businesses and often refer people on the street to social agencies or shelters.

The group in charge of the program admits it's difficult to measure how effective patrol units actually are in keeping the streets safer and reducing negative perceptions about the city's business areas.

"That's one of the things we are wrestling with. I think there is a lack of awareness that the program is out there," said Brent Penner, executive director of The Partnership, the Downtown Business Improvement District. The pilot program, at a cost of more than $700,000 over two years, ends this summer.

Without support from city council, the patrols will be off the street as early as June. The wages and benefits for four officers and a supervisor add up to about $265,000 a year.

The rest of the budget pays for equipment and uniforms.

Penner and others on the civic committee that oversees the operation of the group want to increase that budget to hire more officers so the patrols can cover more ground.

"Presence is a hugely important part of this. It's that uniformed presence out on the street that people can feel safe to go to," said Sarah Marchildon, executive director of the Broadway Business Improvement District.

Marchildon was initially critical of the program but says in the year and half since the officers hit the street she has warmed to the idea of having officers who deal with street issues that aren't criminal or violent.

"Nobody is complaining about it. Nobody is calling the office saying it doesn't work," Marchildon said.

Overall crime in the city's three business areas has fluctuated since the officers began their daily street patrols.

Police officials say there is no way to correlate the reductions or the increases in crime to the officers.

"Have we seen a sizable decrease in calls to police service because of the CSO program? No. But it's a difficult thing to measure," said police Insp. Mitch Yuzdepski.

Some are not convinced that funding the program in its current form is the right move. Coun. Charlie Clark said while he respects the work the officers do, he wants to see more data that proves the patrols are an effective use of city dollars.

"The key issue is whether it is making a difference in the lives of people in the community, and when you are dealing primarily with a perception question, it's hard to measure that," Clark said.

Clark said he also wants to make sure the street patrol's work fits into other city-wide initiatives like the Plan to End Homelessness and the city police move to a HUB intervention model.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix