As Crime Increases, Better Communications Should Be the Goal

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THUNDER BAY – The Executive Director of the Thunder Bay Counselling Service Nancy Chamberlain stated, “The crime rate continues to grow in Thunder Bay with offenses being committed in the streets, in our homes and even in our schools against victims of all ages”.

Many people in Thunder Bay are concerned over what they see as a rising crime rate in our city. Seniors are reporting they do not venture out in the evening because they are afraid.

Thunder Bay Police Chief Robert Herman has just been appointed the President of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. The honour comes after a year where Chief Herman served as the Association’s Vice President.

While Chief Herman has his critics, the truth is in many ways all of the members of our police service are doing a much needed and often underappreciated job. That does not mean that the Chief is above critical comment, but that making positive suggestions should be what our city’s residents offer to the brass at the police service.

The Thunder Bay Police Service does an amazing job of dealing with crime, after it happens. The reality in our city is that the case clearance rate is top-notch. Our officers are doing a good job in clearing crimes.

However there are areas where there remains a great deal of room for improvement, and some areas where there remains almost no apparent progress.

There is one area where Police Chief Herman has missed a real opportunity to make strides forward. That area is understanding of the massive importance of timely and solid communication with the general public by the Police Administration. The degree of communications to the growing Aboriginal population in Thunder Bay has been one area where the TBPS has been pointed by outside consultants to improve their efforts.

When you look at the “Sunshine List” for the City of Thunder Bay, the first name on the list is Chris Adams, the Executive Officer for the TBPS. One of Adam’s responsibilities is communication with the media and the public.

Yet Thunder Bay lags massively compared to other similar sized Canadian cities, and are even further behind some of our sister cities, including Duluth.

Thunder Bay is a small city, but is one with a very connected population. TBaytel shares that 85% of the homes in our community are connected to the Internet. There are over 50,000 people on Facebook within a 50km radius of Thunder Bay. Those numbers represent a massive opportunity for the TBPS.

Yet online the TBPS seem to be trapped in the mindset that the Internet isn’t important. Reports of incidents lag by days before ending up (if ever) shared with the general public.

There is no online crime mapping, and there is no way, online, for the public to communicate with the police. It is a policy that puts Thunder Bay behind many Canadian cities, and many other communities in North America.

One of the added problems is that the communication of concerns to police administration result in little action, or worse yet, in insulting comments from some senior officials in the department.

The problem with that approach, which might have worked well back when Chief Herman was a police rookie, is that today communication happens in nano-seconds.

Today, when an incident happens, via Twitter, Facebook, and email, the information on an incident, and the “facts” be they accurate, or not are out within seconds from residents who share what they saw, or heard happened.

When the TBPS lag by hours, days, or in some cases weeks, what really happens is that public confidence in our front-line officers suffers.

When that happens in areas impacting the Aboriginal population, the long-term impact is a growing segment of people who do not trust the police. That is not good for Thunder Bay.

It is almost as if some in service at the TBPS Administration have developed an “us vs. them” siege-style mentality. Yet for the massive majority of our city’s police officers, they are friendly and helpful.

Those officers understand Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing and his principle that, “Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

In British Columbia, the New Westminster Police Service posts those prionciples on their website, sharing them for both the public and for the police as well.

In Thunder Bay, better communications between the police and the public would foster part of the needed environment for a safer Thunder Bay that police, politicians, and the public all say that we all want.

That should be one of the major goals that Chief Herman puts forward. Let us all hope his new added responsibilities don’t keep him from moving his department to the forefront of communications with the public.

That of course is just my opinion, as always, your mileage may vary.

James Murray