Does Yellowknife need a more visible police presence?
The priorities of Yellowknife’s police and municipal enforcement officers are being discussed by city councillors, with their visibility downtown central to the debate.
Yellowknife’s RCMP detachment asks councillors for input on its priorities each year, while council separately provides the City of Yellowknife’s municipal enforcement offers a set of priorities.
“Visibility” is recommended as a top priority for both police and municipal enforcement in briefing notes prepared by City staff.
The briefing note says a visible, uniformed presence in Yellowknife – which has been a priority in previous years – will “support the City’s initiatives to address homelessness [and] current pressures in the downtown area.”
Violence in downtown Yellowknife has made headlines in recent weeks. Neighbours of the day shelter on 50 Street say they have faced attacks, threats, and damage to property since the shelter moved to its new location six months ago.
“I think you want police downtown, working in collaboration with the other initiatives,” Inspector Alex Laporte, who commands the Yellowknife detachment, told councillors on Monday.
“My message to the members [of the detachment] has been … making connections downtown, shaking hands, not just driving around three times in a marked police vehicle.”
However, some councillors expressed concern that more people in uniform may not lead to less crime.
“What effect do we expect them to have on people, and is that really true?” Asked Cllr Shauna Morgan.
“Are we assuming that by having someone in any kind of uniform downtown, that will deter criminal behaviour? Maybe. Maybe not.”
Earlier, Cllr Stacie Smith asked Laporte “how he felt relationships are going” with the city’s Indigenous community.
“Being First Nations, growing up, one of the first things that was instilled in myself and my family was: don’t call the cops,” said Smith. “There was a trust issue there between First Nations and RCMP.
“In speaking with some community members, I know … people are not wanting to call [RCMP] any more, because they are not being heard.”
In response, Laporte said his detachment had a “mandate to provide culturally aware police services” and sent its officers for Indigenous awareness training alongside other events designed to improve relations.
“We reactivated our community policing service two years ago, in the fall of 2017,” he said, “to connect with youth early in the schools, to create that relationship and defeat the culture of ‘don’t call the police.’ I strongly believe that investment is of great value.
“The priorities I have received in recent years from the City of Yellowknife and Yellowknives Dene First Nation are very similar. Building trust resonates through the region.”
While Morgan said she appreciated the inspector’s “willingness to be open with us and talk about underlying issues, and not just sweep things out of sight,” she said not everyone would feel safer with people in uniform nearby.
“This idea that people set on bad things will stop doing what they’re doing as soon as they see a uniform … and step up and behave? That’s a faulty assumption,” she said.
“Sometimes that behaviour goes elsewhere and gets pushed into the shadows, where it may be even harder to enforce. We have to be aware of unintended effects and question the assumptions of what we’re actually accomplishing.”
Discussing whether municipal enforcement officers should also be tasked to provide higher-visibility patrols downtown, Cllr Robin Williams questioned whether they are suitably equipped for the task.
Known as “bylaw officers” as they enforce the provisions of City bylaws, municipal enforcement officers do not have the same authority as members of the RCMP and ordinarily are asked to address traffic violations, noise complaints, or incidents at City facilities.
As an example, one municipal enforcement officer is currently on duty daily from 1pm-6pm at Yellowknife’s public library, which has been the scene of violent incidents in the recent past.
In most violent situations, municipal enforcement officers would be expected to summon RCMP assistance.
“I hope we’re not setting up our officers for failure by telling them to increase their visibility but not giving them authority for some of the situations they come across,” said Williams.
Morgan added: “If the object is to make people feel safe but they don’t actually have the tools to keep people safe, are we setting up false expectations? What actually are we accomplishing?
“In my mind, the assistance at the library is one tangible thing. We’ve already ramped up our presence at the library. We have more of a role there: it’s a City facility, a venue downtown where lots of things tend to happen.
“I think that has been a positive presence, and I think we should continue that – be explicit, and say that is going to be one of our priorities, going forward.”
‘People have seen more officers’
Statistics presented to councillors by Laporte suggest a third of the Yellowknife RCMP detachment’s downtown patrols in March focused on the area around the day shelter on 50 Street.
There were 59 patrols in total – approximately two per day.
Cllr Niels Konge, examining those statistics (which are presented monthly), asked if a regional breakdown could be included so councillors can see how crime varies according to downtown district. Laporte said that would be done in future.
Picking up on a figure of 80 assaults in March, Konge said: “It would be helpful, at least for me, to understand where those assaults are happening.”
Konge added he felt RCMP were already doing a good job of being visible throughout the city. “You’re doing that outside of the downtown and community-wide, which is a good thing,” he said.
Responding to a question from Smith about downtown patrols, Laporte acknowledged “growing concern around the day shelter and sobering centre.”
“We have created a plan to realign some of our efforts and create more visibility,” he said. “I think … people have seen more officers. The efforts are continuing.
“We have a group of members that are very committed, as citizens of this town as well, to the issues that we are seeing right now.”
Monday’s meeting – officially known as the Governance and Priorities Committee, ordinarily attend by all councillors – ended early when the departure of Williams left the committee without quorum.
That meant a range of items – including the City’s 2018 audit, and a discussion regarding whether to proceed with a federally funded replacement of a water pipeline – have been postponed until meetings later in the month.