By Jennifer O'Brien, The London Free Press, Thursday, November 20, 2014 10:22:16
Faster and tougher, London’s downtown police foot patrol is laying twice as many criminal charges now as five years ago.
A big part of the reason?
The spike in numbers is dramatic: 534 charges so far this year, compared to 237 in 2009 with the same number of officers and even fewer shifts worked.
Drill down, and the real change kicked into gear in 2012.
That’s when Sgt. Gary Strang, an avid cyclist who hasn’t driven to work in 19 years, took over.
He decided to make better use of the patrol’s mountain bikes.
“It’s the bikes that got the job done,” he said Thursday, recalling for the city’s police services board how one particular suspect was collared.
In the past three years, Strang has enrolled all 12 foot patrol officers in a police mountain bike course.
He puts them through rigorous training that includes riding down steep staircases.
All 12 can now easily navigate down a 100-step flight of stairs on their sturdy bikes, he said.
They’re also masters of “slow-speed handling” — keeping their bikes upright even when they’re barely moving — and navigating tough urban terrain.
They’ve all learned how to do a “takedown,” or arrest, from their bikes and to “fence,” or box in, suspects using their two-wheelers.
The payoff hasn’t just come on the criminal docket: The patrol is writing up more provincial offences — dishing out more than double the number of notices this year for the minor offences, like drunkenness and loitering, than it did five years ago.
Strang showed video of a smirking thief stealing a bike downtown, only to be instantly chased down by officers who hand-cuffed him within minutes.
But there’s more than just wheels behind the impressive surge in numbers: Forging links is also key.
“The marked increase in occurrences is directly attributable to the relationships with (community members),” Strang said. “They’re calling us.”
That part of the job, even on a bike, makes the patrol a highly contested posting.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to build a good rapport,” Strang said, showing video of another officer in uniform, strumming a busker’s guitar.
“We are doing policing, but we are looked at as kind officers and our rapport with the public is great. People love it, they know us,” he said.
And they know them.
Foot patrol officers have become the force’s “pre-eminent group of identifiers,” eyes and ears often called by others to identify wanted people, said Strang. So far this year, foot patrol officers have identified 113 people for other units.
Chief Brad Duncan said the public has made it clear in community meetings the patrol is a “no-touch zone” for any budget-related restructuring.
He said he eventually hopes to increase the unit, noting its officers have changed how they see it.
“When you were first on the job, we all walked the beat. It wasn’t seen as the best place to be,” he said.
“It’s now a sought-after position. It’s a competition.”
2014 (so far): 1,459 provincial,
2013: 1,943 provincial, 549 criminal
2012: 1,560 provincial, 449 criminal
2011: 1,311 provincial, 240 criminal
2010: 618 provincial, 160 criminal
2009: 710 provincial, 237 criminal
THE FOOT PATROL
12: Full-time officers (10 west downtown, 2 east downtown)
Spring Clean: Targeted drug trafficking at Dundas and Richmond streets
Simcoe: Targeting vicious tenant attacks and drug issues at an apartment building
Spin: Targeting bike thefts
Overrun: Targeting drug-trafficking downtown