N.W.T. pilot project ‘connecting with people’ on personal level without using police

‘We connect with people on a personal level… there’s already a relationship there, we know everyone in our community and they know us,” says Dylan Steeves.

When Dylan Steeves goes to work in Fort Liard, he never knows what calls for help will greet him.

What he can be certain of is he’ll respond to those requests with an understanding of those in need.

Steeves is a community safety officer helping to mould and implement the first community policing program in the Northwest Territories.

The pilot program doesn’t use standard police enforcement but aims to use alternative methods to keep the community safe and prevent crime.

“Situations might stem from community members concerned about an intoxicated person so they are afraid they may not make it home, to vehicles stuck and needing to get unstuck or needing transport back to town, to dog issues, ATVs,” Steeves said.

The hamlet of Fort Liard, the traditional territory of the Acho Dene Koe First Nation and Métis, has a population of approximately 600 people.

It’s serviced by a four-member RCMP detachment, typically made up of officers who are parachuted into the community, stay a few years and then leave.

Steeves, 21, said he took the job in the hopes of making a difference in the community.

He responds to mental health calls and coordinates with social workers.

“We connect with people on a personal level and they [hamlet] aren’t throwing someone in from somewhere else that no one knows. There’s already a relationship there, we know everyone in our community and they know us,” he said.

Steeves is one of two officers who over the last six months have created the administrative blueprint for the program.

They have developed departmental policies around community safety and created document structures and logging reports.

In January, the duo travelled to Whitehorse where they completed a two-week training course on everything from victim trauma-informed approaches, to operational readiness, to behaviour of people in crisis and more.

“The training helped us think to reflect on situations and how we handled them,” Steeves said. “Getting to the root cause of the issue they [person in need] are dealing with without beating around the bush and let them know we are here to help, get down to the basis of it and try not to escalate it more.”

Fort Liard has also borrowed ideas from the nationally recognized community safety program delivered by the Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Whitehorse.

The hamlet’s senior administrator John McKee said the safety officer program is part of a larger effort to prioritize the safety of residents and will offer community-based responses to public safety issues and reduce the number of calls to RCMP.

“We just got up and rolling and we had identified this as a need mentioned by community members, people not knowing where to really turn,” McKee said.

Elders’ safety is an important component of the program.

“We’re going to have a sign that we put in each elder’s house that has a number and then we will do a brief resume of who is in the house, any disabilities or issues in that house,” McKee said. “This will be available to us, RCMP and social services, so they know when they go to the house they’ll have background.”

Officers also respond to concerns over the safety of intoxicated individuals.

“We try to take people to a warm safe place where people can take care of them. Usually, calling the RCMP is the last action that we would take if there was no other options,” Steeves said.

Another keystone to the hamlet’s community patrolling, officers do not have authority to enforce laws, nor do they carry weapons.

Instead, Steeves said officers respond to non-criminal concerns, ensure translators are available for residents who wish to communicate in dene zhatıe and find ways to build relationships between residents and the RCMP.

“Growing up in the community and living around everyone here. I think that makes us feel safe and I don’t think there’s any need to carry any sort of self-defense weapons. It also makes us more approachable as opposed to someone with a baton and pepper spray,” he said.

The pilot program is earmarked for three years, with more than $300,000 in territorial funding.

It also falls under the N.W.T.’s calls to justice for the MMIWG draft action plan aimed to “bridge the gap between community safety needs and the role of the RCMP.”

For Steeves, he is happy to connect with his community in this role.

“A lot of it I think if people don’t know what direction to go or who to ask. That’s a big reason why we are here, support their decisions and help them move in the right direction and make the right choices,” he said.

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