Money to hire an additional 1.5 RCMP officers at the Ridge Meadows detachment has been redirected to address community safety needs, including the hiring of a new manager and two new community safety officers (CSOs) to patrol the downtown Maple Ridge core.
During the City of Maple Ridge’s 2020-2024 business planning a decision was made to hire a new manager, along with the two new safety officers, explained the city’s chief financial officer Trevor Thompson.
Business planning took place Nov. 18 through 20 and the resulting financial plan bylaw was given three readings in December and adopted in January, he noted.
It was during this planning, explained Thompson, that hiring of the RCMP officers was put on hold due to a police services review by the City of Pitt Meadows. That money, about $225,000, was, instead, “reallocated to address community safety needs,” Thompson said, noting the annual cost of the two CSOs is about $180,000.
Chad Cowles is the new manager of the community social safety initiatives for the City of Maple Ridge. He started as a CSO in Maple Ridge in September 2019, when the pilot for the initiative began. Another CSO was hired in January and another in April.
Previously, community safety officers were made up of RCMP auxiliaries. Now, the program is operated out of the bylaws department.
The most recent hires started patrolling the streets on Monday, July 6.
The team of five is focused on the downtown core and the commercial district of Maple Ridge. The officers tackle social issues like homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness, said Cowles.
Their strategy, he elaborated, is of encouraging people towards “sober living pathways.”
“So we get connected with all of the social services in town and do simple needs assessments for people,” he explained.
During Phase 2 of the provincial COVID re-opening of businesses in town, Cowles noted, there was a lot of conflict between businesses owners and people who had been on the street throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, “and got quite comfortable there.”
“CSOs, right now, are focused on just buffering those conflicts and helping people feel safe when they are in the core, whether that be in parks or the business district,” Cowles said.
Councillor Gordy Robson believes Maple Ridge is leading the way when it comes to redirecting public safety money into areas that help people who are in trouble and need assistance to get off the streets.
“Defunding police means you are moving money from police budgeting into some other thing, and that’s exactly what we are doing,” Robson said.
The city is spending differently, as part of the public safety program, to be more effective in how they deliver public safety, said City of Maple Ridge Mayor Mike Morden.
And, he added, this is just one part of a much larger package.
The Community Social Safety Initiatives, as laid out on the city’s website, is a “multi-faceted program that seeks to ensure citizens feel safe and engaged; citizens are protected; and citizens’ well-being is supported.”
It explains that the City is working with community partners and other levels of government to gather input, identify service gaps, and seek opportunities to improve service levels where needed.
The plan includes the creation of the team of community safety officers.
“They meet people where they’re at. They respond mostly in the downtown core where there’s concerns about safety and various things going on, things that the RCMP, it doesn’t make sense for them to deal with it,” said Morden.
“Their role is to intervene and try and facilitate better outcomes for these individuals and ensure that our downtown core is safe for people to use and enjoy,” the mayor added.
The money did come from the public safety budget, Morden confirmed, clarifying that there’s been no reduction in how much they are spending overall on public safety.
“Community safety officers are around two-thirds of the cost of a police officer,” he cited.
“These individuals are hired because of their expertise in order to be able to respond to mental health, addictions, as well as, to deal with public nuisance and to try and change pathways for people,” said Morden. But also, he noted, they’re there to ensure citizens and the business community feel safe, and that they are safe.
Down by the Fraser River, Cowles said, a team of community safety officers recently found a person inside of a sewer pipe who had been homeless for more than 20 years.
The team was able to find the man housing that afternoon and the man was receiving alcohol addiction treatment the very next day, thanks to a partnership with Alouette Addictions.
Success stories like that take place when the stars align, said Cowles.
But, he said, a lot of their work is usually painstaking and requires an abundance of patience.