The Moose Jaw Police Service is exploring the idea of creating an Alternative Response Officer (ARO) Special Constable program.
The Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) has already set up an ARO program for their downtown. Insp. Darren Pringle from the SPS gave a presentation about the program to the Moose Jaw Board of Police Commissioners last week.
“Of course, we're very early in the exploration phase of that and it would become a budgetary issue and a few other pieces down the road. But it's something that we think is worth looking at and seeing how it would fit here,” said Moose Jaw Police Service Chief Rick Bourassa.
ARO special constables are unarmed officers that can be used in low-intensity, low-risk situations.
Pringle took nine months to develop the ARO program in Saskatoon with the Downtown Riversdale community as the target area for the pilot project.
The program came out of a 2017 SPS operational review with one of the recommendations being an alternative service delivery.
Pringle said he wanted to do research and evaluation before bringing forward the program because he didn’t want to see it fail because it was based on antidotes.
“I didn’t necessarily want this program to go that direction,” he said.
He chose downtown as it would give the AROs the most experience and they could use that data to move the unit around the city, but a gap assessment was also needed.
The program met four out of its five strategic priorities. The first was being fiscally responsible with the public money entrusted to the police force and doing more with less. Pringle noted that a first-class special constable is 85 per cent cheaper than a first-class regular member. Saskatoon police also found that AROs were the best candidates to go to Regina to police college to become fourth-class constables with a savings of about 60 per cent.
There was a crime and safety strategic priority that looked at the idea of having something other than a regular officer on the beat in the area. Pringle’s research show that, since 2004, the UK has had unarmed police community safety officers that have shown to be effective.
Pringle also looked at the delegation of tasks and what tasks can be handled by unarmed special constables and tasks that should be handled by armed regular officers.
The researched looked at the partnerships the police had with the city. Pringle found that the police’s duties were overlapping with work being done by community support officers, such as bylaw enforcement officers, while other areas were being missed.
Moose Jaw currently has a pilot project similar to the community support officers program with non-police officers patrolling city facilities, mainly at night, and contacting police if there are any issues where law enforcement is needed.
The SPS found that the AROs could make up that overlap so the community support officers can focus on outreach and referral work as intended.
Pringle also looked at the people on the police force that are overworked. One of the big issues he found was that they could free fully-equipped carbine patrol cars for low-risk tasks such as traffic control, evidence collection or visiting businesses to take reports.
"It was making increasingly less sense for us to send a doomsday-equipped police car with a trained and qualified member on all of these force options that have to occur when we could have a special constable go and do it and still retain the ability to pass forward what was found on the scene and the evidence gained in a prevalent manner," Pringle said.
Pringle said the research showed that externally the SPS’s partnerships were inefficient or absent with community-based organizations. Internally, there was confusion with priorities as regular members would be told that their beats are important and staff sergeants and watch commanders in charge of deployments were told they must have officers on the streets. Yet, when something big happens, those beat officers are instantly redeployed.
“That was the nice thing about being unarmed is that for 100 per cent of the time they were on the beat during the trial period because we weren't able to redeploy and weren’t armed so we couldn't send them to a higher-priority, higher-threat call,” Pringle said.
When it came to qualifications, the SPS asked for the special constables to have a Bachelor of Social Work or Human Justice degree or specialized human interaction training as they would be prone to work with vulnerable members of the community.
The training was tricky because it was a hybrid between a SPS officer and the provincially-regulated community safety officers. This meant working with the Ministry of Policing on a framework for training.
Saskatoon’s special constables receive three weeks of community safety officer training and the SPS received permission for an added two weeks of training for community-specific material.
The SPS also received permission for six weeks of field training including four weeks working with an experienced beat field training officer and two weeks of intensive supervision before graduating to go on the beat on their own.
Pringle said AROs fall under The Police Act so there is accountability and public oversight if there is misconduct.
Since July 1, 2021, the AROs in Saskatoon have responded to 1,891 calls for service, 1,300 business contacts, 1,249 warnings, 581 tickets, 631 transports, 789 agency referrals, 80 intoxication arrests, 66 charges laid, 208 file assists, 168 warrant arrests, 94 properties handled, 46 parades and escorts, 29 crime scene guards and 16 lifesaves (NARCAN, CPR and other lifesaving measures).
The SPS brought their data to Dr. Tarah Hodgkinson, a criminologist at Wilfrid Laurier University. The analysis took in data from the past year as well as data from four years prior.
She found that 82 per cent of the time AROs were used for direct service delivery as intended, just under nine per cent for enforcement support and nine per cent for investigative support. Her analysis showed their activities were consistent with reassurance policing to make people feel safe.
Hodgkinson found that it achieved the goal of regular members responding to high-risk calls and spending less time on administrative calls.
One item the SPS is taking into consideration is that the AROs are intended to be a standalone profession and not a “farm team” for up-and-coming regular officers. In Saskatoon, they found that many special constables were creating applicants too good to pass up.
Hodgkinson noted in her analysis that, depending on the task, the police service should weigh appropriately between hiring AROs versus regular members.