Thunder Bay can fight its ongoing crime issues so long as it is willing to look beyond handcuffs.
“You just can’t arrest your way out of these problems,” said Dr. Irvin Waller, a criminologist from the University of Ottawa and best-selling author of Smarter Crime Control: A Guide to a Safer Future for Citizens, Communities and Politicians.
“What we know from the research over the last 50 years is that we can prevent crime before it happens. We know that cities that have decided that they’ve wanted to reduce violence … have been very successful.”
Waller arrived in Thunder Bay on Friday to address the city-organized Community Leader’s Learning Event on Crime Prevention and Community Safety at the Victoria Inn. An internationally recognized expert on the issue, Waller has acted as an advisor in more than 50 countries.
Waller argues real crime reduction comes from shifting the focus away from incarceration and instead investing in programs and sectors known to help prevent crime and diagnose problem areas.
Just some of many examples include early childhood initiatives, which help reach youth who are not involved. Meanwhile, using hospital emergency rooms as sources for information gathering helps identify troubled neighbourhoods.
“So basically when you come to the hospital with a knife wound or broken jaw, the surgeon sews you up, but while you’re there the hospital collects data about why you got there,” he said.
“Why you got there means ‘where were you knifed, what was going on, how much alcohol was around, what led up to this event?’”
Information is collected and placed into a database. Patterns can then be sought and when they’re found the data can be provided to the agencies that can best address the issues.
The result is targeted investing in neighbourhoods that need the attention rather than broadly spreading money across the city.
This style of upstream investment crime prevention has a track record. Glasgow has seen a crime rate reduction of 50 per cent, while Minneapolis’ violent crime rate drop has made it the exception among other U.S. cities.
These programs may come with positive statistics, but the price tag can often make them political hot potatoes.
It’s an argument Waller isn’t buying.
The criminologist believes continued rising, and arguably unsustainable, police budgets across the country serve as proof there is a political desire to invest in crime prevention and community safety.
Evidence also suggests that today’s investments will eventually become tomorrow’s tax savings. Using Germany as a benchmark, Waller says the country could save itself $1.5 billion annually if it reduced its incarceration rates to that of its European counterpart.
Locally, programs that fit the upstream investment model might be heading to Thunder Bay.
Jeff Upton, chair of the city’s crime prevention council, confirmed that the committee is working on programs similar to some of the examples Waller mentioned during his local visit. The committee is likely to reveal details into some of the programs soon.
Until then, Upton said Friday’s discussion, along with some of the examples of city’s successfully tackling their own crime issues, is good reason to feel optimistic.
“It gives us that hope,” he said, adding that the council is always looking for established programs that have gotten real results.
“Having Dr. Waller talk about the other cities and the research he presented today lets us reflect on that research and to find out what we can bring in to our own community.”
Friday wasn’t the first time the local crime prevention council had an opportunity to meet with Waller. The Ottawa professor met with the committee in September 2010 to help with its official launch.