Forging positive relationships with young people is one of the greatest challenges that Toronto Police Service (TPS) officers face, says Chief William “Bill” Blair.
“Youths, by virtue of being young, are often resistant to authority and there is no one that personifies authority more than the police,” Blair said at a town hall meeting last week at the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) centre. “We are, for the most part, always in uniform and carrying a firearm.”
Several police services in the Greater Toronto Area, including the TPS, have reached out to young people in disenfranchised communities through the “Youth in Policing” program that’s part of the Ontario government’s Youth Opportunities Strategy launched in 2006 by then Minister of Youth and Children Services, Mary Anne Chambers.
“Almost 92 per cent were minorities and they came from the poorest neighborhoods,” said Blair. “Many of them didn’t have any aspirations for the future before they came into the program. That changed at the end of the program, however. We know that when we get these opportunities to work with young people and to interact with them in a positive way, we can make a difference. It (the program) is just a small example of what can be achieved when we invest in youth.
“It transforms us and it changes the police service. It changes how we see youth and diverse youth. We get to interact with them everyday. You can’t help yourself and you get to start to like them. You start to respect them and then it changes the way in which you see young people in other communities we serve and that is that they are not always in trouble and they are not all causing grief for their communities and their families.
“Our young kids are not out of control. In this city, we have a relatively small number of people, maybe 1,500, who are involved in gangs, drugs and violence and they represent a huge risk to everyone else. The difficulty in dealing with this small number of people is that their activities stigmatize hundreds of thousands so that other young people are often perceived to be dangerous, out of control, criminals and a threat to the rest of society when they are not. The great risk is that when a young person is stigmatized for the actions of a handful of others, their opportunities are limited.”
Blair defended the presence of police officers in some Toronto schools as part of the service’s community outreach initiative to build positive relationships.
A total of 52 officers are assigned to locals schools this year which is 22 more than were allocated when the initiative was launched in the 2008-09 school year.
“We avoided the schools with bad reputations because we did not want to make their reputations any worse,” said Blair. “There are no bad schools. There are schools where there has been a greater degree of victimization. There are schools that have been exploited by violent people. Those are schools which are victims and I did not want to add to their burden.
“We asked the school board to pick the schools they wanted us to go to and we said we would only go where we are welcomed. The Toronto District School Board asked us to be in every school but we could not do that because I don’t have enough police officers. We are building relationships with young people in those places and because we are human beings, it’s not a perfect relationship, but it’s part of our ongoing effort to connect with kids.”