51 Division adds new community response officers to Moss Park beat

Dennis Hanagan —

Toronto Police 51 Division has added a new kind of police officer to its patrols in the Moss Park neighbourhood.
They’re called neighbourhood officers and, unlike primary officers and those in the Community Response Unit who deal with general police work, neighbourhood officers are given the time to get to know people in the community and learn about problems the area faces.

“Deputy (Chief Peter) Sloly has asked every Division to identify a neighbourhood, a relatively small geographic area, that really could benefit from having the same officers in there all the time. A familiar face is a good way of putting it,” 51 Division Superintendent Liz Byrnes said in an interview.

(Neighbourhood officers have been in Regent Park for about four years.)

“They get to know what’s going on that’s good, they get to know what’s going on that’s bad. The people that live in the neighbourhood get to know them.”

Neighbourhood officers don’t just run in when there’s trouble, explained Byrnes. They’re in the community for the long-term and to build bridges between the people and police.

The Moss Park area has a significant homeless population. Many of them and those living in shelters have multiple addictions or mental health issues. Some are victims of drug users. “They (the users) are taking their last few nickles to buy that quick hit,” said Byrnes.

Neighbourhood officers take the time to hook up homeless with agencies so they can get the help they need. “Their role is more focused on the shelter system and the agencies and services that are out there,” said Byrnes.

“Our folks are boots on the ground. They’re people who run into people, talk to people all the time who are dealing with these issues and it would really help if they had a better awareness and understanding and connection to some of those services and agencies. That’s why we put the neighbourhood officers in place in Moss Park,” she said.

The Moss Park officers began their work in mid-September and have been visiting local community support agencies to explain their task. They were selected for the job because they have a “strong awareness” of some of the problems in the area, said Byrnes. “They were really well-known to a lot of the homeless people.”

Byrnes feels the public has a misconception about relations between the homeless and police, that being that police only arrest and charge the homeless to get them off the street.

“They would be happy if homeless people were off the street because nobody should have to live on the street. It’s not that they don’t want them there because they don’t want to see them,” said Byrnes.

“Our folks are out there just as much as homeless advocates are out there, trying to make sure people are safe in the cold weather and in the hot weather.”