The message was designed to elicit a response, and it did just that.
A recent Tweet from St. Thomas Police Chief Chris Herridge advised, “This morning we hit 17,000 incidents, the highest I can remember since starting in 1989. We are on pace to potentially reach 19,000 – averaging over 52 incidents daily. In 2011 we reached 16,031 – our highest before this year. The dedication of staff at STPS has not wavered!”
A phone call to Herridge this past week uncovered other disturbing facts.
So far this year, criminal charges are up 72 per cent and property crime in the city is up 89 per cent over last year.
“So what’s happening is, I believe, there are social issues that are impacting St. Thomas,” advises Herridge. “No different than what I’m hearing from my colleagues in other parts of the province.”
Herridge continues, “And for us, there’s no doubt it’s connected to poverty, homelessness and addictions. Yes, you’re getting people who haven’t been involved in criminal activity. But, a lot of the names we are seeing are repeat offenders.”
That, combined with an increase in bail violations, and you start to get the back story on the huge spike in the number of incidents.
“So people are getting arrested, they’re going to court and they’re getting a release right away,” notes Herridge. “And I’m not pointing the finger at the courts.”
Herridge refers to a 2017 Supreme Court decision whereby an individual has to commit a fairly serious offence before being held in custody.
He cites a recent incident in the city in which a person was arrested and released, only to be arrested again a short time later.
For the first nine months of 2017, Herridge notes there were 78 cases of bail violations. In the same period this year, that number has shot up to 171.
“People are getting arrested, getting released, they’re going out there breaching the conditions of their release, going back to court getting released again, and going out and committing more crimes, and there’s no disincentive. And that’s the problem we’re running into. Trying to hold people to account.”
All of which has prompted Herridge to adopt a new tact in dealing with repeat offenders.
“In the past, we did not release names of people involved unless we felt the person was a serious threat to public safety. I’ve changed my approach on this because, somehow, we have to hold these repeat offenders accountable. “And, you know, I’ve always said policing is a partnership with the community and if we feel that someone is a threat to public safety, or a threat to property, that person’s name, and their age will be released to the public.
“And we need the community’s help. And we need to identify and recognize these people. We need to send a message to the people who are committing these repeat acts. Listen, it’s not going to be tolerated.
“I do not like public shaming and we will not for those people who commit a crime, a one of. Where a young mom goes into Walmart and comes out with a bag of diapers. They’re stealing for a reason. It’s a necessity.”
Herridge has little tolerance for repeat offenders who have been through the system and continue to clog the courts. They will be named. It’s an approach used elsewhere in the province, including South Simcoe, where this month police will identify motorists charged with impaired driving, with Chief Andrew Fletcher advising, “We need to change our approach to impaired driving and make it socially unacceptable to drive while impaired.”
Herridge indicates “Their name will be put out to the public and if we have a warrant for the person and we feel that, again, there are threats to public safety or protection of property, their picture will go, as we’ve been doing on Twitter and Facebook, to track these people down and get them in custody before they continue to victimize the residents of St. Thomas.”
Herridge points out there are city residents who have been victimized repeatedly.
“It is frustrating for them, and it’s getting frustrating for us as well. Our staff, we’re doing a great job over there with the number of incidents. These calls are time consuming. You can imagine the amount of paperwork and the investigations. The demand that puts on our frontline officers to complete that amount of paperwork.
“Not only them but also our front office staff to look after court disclosures. And you’ve got our communication staff taking all these calls for service. We’ve got some serious investigations underway.
It has reached the point where police chiefs across the province are collectively attempting to address the issue of bail violations through dialogue with the Ministry of the Attorney General.
“We need to be holding people to account with stiffer penalties to try and persuade them to stop repeating their crime,” stresses Herridge.
And that may well mean re-visiting the controversial issue of carding.
“I don’t want to open up a can of worms here but sometimes I wonder, with regard to our hands being tied with the street check legislation. You know our ability just to pull over someone who may be walking through the neighbourhood at three o’clock in the morning, suspicious behaviour.”
But it’s not just the increased workload created by repeat offenders that has Herridge concerned.
If it comes as an assurance, Herridge notes it is not a matter of violent crime, it is ongoing property crime. As an example, he indicates the service is dealing with over 200 bike thefts so far this year.
One of the new tools at the service’s disposal is a mental health response worker. However, the funding to keep Alex Paterson on board ran out in October, although an extension will keep her in place through March of next year.
“Our police officers are trained to do a lot when it comes to public safety and helping people out, but we are not trained in mental health.”
“We have sent a business case to the provincial government to look for funding annually, not a grant where we have to keep applying every year. We know this is a valuable resource working for the vulnerable people in our community who need it.
“We don’t want to lose it. We want to have that for those folks. But we need the funding and the funding has to come from somewhere. So we’re just waiting for a response now for our pilot project here in St. Thomas.”
Policing now is more about social issues and being street corner psychiatrists, and that is not fair to police service staff, cautions Herridge.
“And it’s not fair to those who need that expert help or support for referral for follow-up. And Alex tells me we’ve answered over 1,200 mental health calls so far in 2018 she’s had contact with over 450 people. “When you put that in perspective, that’s 450 people in St Thomas who received expert help from a clinician trained in the area that they need help in.
“Our police officers are trained to do a lot when it comes to public safety and helping people out, but we are not trained in mental health.”
Bottom line, asserts Herridge, is delivering a good quality service to keep St. Thomas safe and inviting to others.
“When I call the police I don’t have to wait several hours. You know, that’s what people are looking for. It’s quality of life.”
“Especially when a lot of people are coming here to retire or you get young people coming here to raise their kids. People don’t want to be living in a dangerous community.”
IMPROVING FIRE SAFETY THROUGH FAIRNESS AND EFFICIENCY?
The Doug Ford government is proposing legislation which it deems will improve fire safety in the province by protecting what are known as “double-hatters” and reforming the arbitration process used to resolve collective agreement stalemates.
The former has not had an impact in St. Thomas, however, arbitration is a factor in the current round of negotiations between the city and its fire service, although proposed changes will not impact the process now underway.
In a conversation this week with Warren Scott, president of the 55-member St. Thomas Professional Fire Fighters Association, he stresses this is the first time in more than 30 years contract talks have gone to arbitration.
“This is the first time in my career. The last time we were in arbitration, I think, was in 1985 or 1986. In all those years we have been able to freely negotiate deals. The new legislation will have no impact on our current arbitration.
Proposed amendments to the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, 1997, would require arbitrators to consider other settlements reached with municipal employees in the same municipality.
In addition, arbitrators would have to consider economic criteria like labour markets, property tax, and local factors affecting that community.
Scott notes arbitrators already take these criteria into consideration.
“I’ve always said the corporations weren’t willing to open their books. It’s one thing to say we can’t pay it, but to open their books to show they can’t, there was always a hesitancy. I don’t think anything there has changed.”
Scott continues, “That’s the benefit to having a good working relationship, where you can come to an agreement with both parties. Both sides agreeing to what’s on that piece of paper.
“Ideally an arbitration shouldn’t be a winner and a loser. Arbitration, ideally, should reflect what collective bargaining should have done. History has shown the awards that come out from arbitrations, are very similar to what freely negotiated agreements are. Arbitration does work.”
Comparing firefighters to municipal workers within the community typically has not been the case, notes Scott.
“Because our jobs are different. Typically arbitrators have been asked to compare us to police and other municipal fire departments. This new legislation seems to be pushing them to compare to other city workers.
“The only problem we have with that is, we’re not allowed to strike. And our jobs are very different. There is a reason why we are in the profession we are. There are the inherent risks and dangers that go with it. That is why, perhaps, our benefit structure is different.
Scott believes the aim is to mirror firefighters more to the police arbitration system.
“But they haven’t completely done that. They are also looking for us to go to a single arbitrator, where now we have a panel of three. I don’t think we’re going to be given the option of having a three-person board, where the police do have that option.
“It’s always our goal to avoid that. Our preference is not to go to arbitration.”
While obviously not wishing to discuss the arbitration process now underway, the issue of 24-hour shifts is a key consideration in negotiations between the association and the city.
Turning to “double-hatters” Minister of Labour Laurie Scott has said “Many Ontario communities rely on volunteer firefighters to protect homes, families and livelihoods. Full-time firefighters who want to help their neighbours by acting as volunteer firefighters face potential discipline from their associations or threats to their full-time jobs.
“Our proposed reforms to finally protect “double-hatters” will promote public safety and allow firefighters to choose how they volunteer, in their free time.”
Amendments to the act would allow municipalities to resist any pressure to dismiss professional firefighters for “double-hatting” and also ensure professional firefighters cannot face association penalties for “double-hatting.”
Scott delves into the back story on this issue.
“The two-hatter issue, that comes from the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association. Years ago our constitution said you could not do both. You could not be a professional firefighter and a volunteer firefighter elsewhere.
“A few years ago, at a convention, the international association changed the constitution and what it says is you can’t do that if it is going to affect another international firefighters local.”
Scott points out this isn’t about St. Thomas and Southwold and Port Stanley. “It has no effect on us. It’s in places near Toronto, like Caledon, which is the big centre of this thing right now. What you see is a community that is growing. They have full-time firefighters . . . but instead of increasing the full-time numbers, what they’re doing is they call volunteers in.
“Here right now, if our members in St. Thomas want to go and be in Port Stanley, Southwold or Central Elgin, they can. This new legislation hasn’t really changed anything.”
“So, now you’ve got professional firefighters from Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton and Oakville who, on their days off, are now going into Caledon and working. They’re at the station and being paid an hourly rate. That’s what we’re trying to stop because that (union) local will never grow.
“The city is paying these “volunteers” to come in. They don’t have to pay them benefits, so it’s cheaper for them (the municipality). They’re getting experienced people and so that’s the issue.”
Scott continues, “Here right now, if our members in St. Thomas want to go and be in Port Stanley, Southwold or Central Elgin, they can. This new legislation hasn’t really changed anything. Where it’s changed it now is in Caledon. It says it’s OK and the union can’t do anything about it.”
Scott is careful not to diminish the role of volunteer firefighters.
“The job they do is amazing. But, their role has changed. I don’t think it’s unfair to say, many years ago it was a once-a-week thing. You would go to the fire station, you’d probably take the truck out, you’d put the pump in gear and spray some water. And good for them, because if a house or barn caught on fire, they are going to go.
“But that job has changed, they’re not volunteers. They do a great job but call them what they are. They are part-time firefighters. If there’s a medical call, they get paged just like we do.
“But we’re on duty full time, getting a salary. They’re going to these calls and getting a minimum of two hours (compensation) for each one of those calls they go to. And, rightfully so. But, don’t call them volunteers.”
Scott maintains that changes the scope of things.
“The story should read, ‘The IAFF, in their constitution, doesn’t allow full-time firefighters to work as part-time firefighters, where it’s going to affect another local in that union.’
“But how it comes out is, the big, bad union won’t let a professional firefighter go volunteer in his community and give back to the community. But, that’s not what’s he’s doing. That’s the issue I have.”
The proposed legislation makes no difference to firefighters in St. Thomas, advises Scott.
“But it does to the people in a community like Caledon, because they are never, ever going to grow those numbers when our members can now go in and do that.
“Where we could have an internal mechanism to say, if you’re going to do that, here’s a penalty because you’re in the union. Now they are taking that away.”
FOR THE CALENDAR
Monday’s meeting (Dec. 3) will see the swearing-in ceremony for the new council and the inaugural address from in-coming mayor Joe Preston. Pastor Steven McCready from Faith Church, will deliver the inaugural prayer. Note the change in time. The event begins at 7 p.m. in the council chamber at city hall.
Questions and comments may be emailed to City Scope
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