PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. -- It's an overcast but warm afternoon in Prince Albert's notorious West Flat neighbourhood. And it's garbage day.
"This is the worst of the worst," the plainclothes Prince Albert constable tells two visitors from Winnipeg. "It's gangs and garbage and everybody's OK with it. Here, there's a lot of kids. I don't want to say they don't have a chance... but they're behind the eight ball from the beginning.
"People here are so unhappy. It's despair, that's all it is."
The West Flat is the lowest residential rung in a city where soaring violent crime rates and rampant alcohol abuse over the last two decades had pushed local police to the brink. Cops were under siege and social services were overwhelmed.
"We were just dying," said Sgt. Brent Kalinowski, a 26-year veteran in Prince Albert. "Our stats were going through the roof. It was just crazy. It was like you were trying to bail out a sinking ship."
About 100 officers in a city of 35,000 were answering more than 35,000 calls a year. Stabbings, domestic violence, assault; a unsavoury array of offences where 911 lines never stopped humming.
Kalinowski was at his limit.
"I was counting the freaking days," he recalled. "Twenty-five years plus one day and I was done. I was so sick and tired of doing the same thing over and over again. I was catching bad guys on Friday and high-fiving everybody. Then you'd come back Monday and there would be 20 more to catch. It was frustrating."
It was as though the city had become a prison mill. The trends were frightening. Calls for service, which had doubled since 2001, were on track to double again in eight years.
An exasperated Prince Albert police Chief Dale McFee knew only two absolutes about crime in his city: It was only going to get worse and, in his words, police "couldn't arrest their way out of the problem."
Then came a lifeline from Glasgow, Scotland, of all places, which was facing a similar crisis. So three years ago, a handful of Prince Albert cops and social-services workers flew to Scotland and saw their own community in the shattered mirror. The gangs, the knife fights, the drunken assaults. The truancy, the poverty, the domestic violence.
What McFee imported back to Canada was a concept that's part crime-fighting, part Moneyball sabermetrics, part Big Brothers and Sisters.
Oh, and part Big Brother, period.
They call it Community Mobilization in Prince Albert, a rather mundane title for a groundbreaking, intervention-based approach to address violent crime. And it's working.
It's a crime-prevention effort that's spreading like a virus; across Saskatchewan, then outwards to small communities such as Hobbema, Alta., to the metropolis of Toronto, with interest stretching from Vancouver to Halifax.
"It's going viral," said Ken Hunter, the program's executive director and former Prince Albert cop, "because everybody's looking for solutions. And we have them. It's fundamentally changing the way we do business in this country. It's actually changed the whole conversation within our province, within our nation."
Heads up, Manitoba. If you listen closely to Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis and provincial Justice Minister Andrew Swan, it's an evolutionary transformation in crime-fighting -- at least in some variation -- that soon will be coming to a city or town near you.
Tactical analyst Tamara Boechler is sitting at a super-sized boardroom table on the second floor of a nondescript building in downtown Prince Albert. Seated around the table are representatives from every policing and social-services agency in the city: addictions, municipal police and RCMP, mental health, child services, probation, education. The works.
The analyst cites the first "case" -- a 13-year-old girl recently reported missing by a guardian and found intoxicated by patrol officers. The girl was returned to her home. She had been truant and recently adopted a "poor attitude." An investigation revealed the teenager had been a victim of abuse at the hands of a stepfather who had recently moved into the home.
"Are we at acutely elevated risk?" Hunter asks the people at the table. (Asked later for a layman's version of elevated risk, Hunter replied: "Bad shit is going to happen.")
They all agree: "Yes."
So begins the work of the Hub, a cross-section of social-services and enforcement professionals who have been meeting twice a week for just over two years. They have addressed more than 600 "discussions" in an attempt to identify at-risk individuals in their community based on data supplied by agencies or analysts.
It might sound like common sense, but it's cutting-edge. Historically, agencies such as Child and Family Services, mental health or police operate in silos. Too often, they have no clue about the entire story of at-risk clients. If they want advice or information from another agency, it can literally take weeks or months.
At the boardroom table in Prince Albert, that process takes seconds or minutes. At each meeting, about a dozen pending cases are dealt with, then a half dozen new files are considered. In all cases, the response time, which includes social services and enforcement literally knocking on the person of interest's door to offer assistance, takes less than 24 hours.
"Historically, that never happened," Kalinowski said. "In a lot of cases, you investigate a homicide, you get your bad guy, there's no surprise to see that criminal record a mile long, right? That same bad guy also has a long list with schools and truancy. He dropped out, had addictions issues. Social services was involved. And on and on. Those connections were never made earlier on, but the warning signs were all there."
In the case of the 13-year-old girl, police officers and social workers intervened by talking to the teenager and mother. The stepfather was subsequently arrested and removed from the home. The young girl started going to school. So did the mother. No further incidents have been reported.
The basic concept is straightforward: For every eventual violent crime or victimization, there is inevitably a timeline -- disturbing footprints that are found in police records, Child and Family Services files, court blotters and school report cards. What if that path could somehow be altered?
"There's truly bad guys out there that need to be in jail," Hunter said. "But there's also poor souls who fall into the justice system because their needs haven't been met."
What's unique about Prince Albert isn't the services already available, it's the transparency and unprecedented co-operation the Hub creates between agencies with a history of operating in their own silos.
"The tough part is putting it together. That's why it's never been done before," Kalinowski said. "You're dealing with several different agencies. It's very difficult to start getting people to pull the wagon in the same direction. There's a lot of different reasons for that. Territorial leadership: 'I'm doing a good job, why are you telling me I'm not.' The pride issue: 'Don't tell me I've failed.' The word 'change,' my God, just saying it to some people makes them shudder."
Added Hunter: "We're still working every day (to break down barriers) but in the last 27 months we've come miles. Every agency has its own culture, budget and burdens. Nobody wants to get into trouble. That's a big hurdle for us."
The highest hurdle is privacy. The entire Hub operation, modified since inception, is designed around simultaneously protecting privacy and protecting at-risk individuals from harm.
"We're walking on a knife's edge with privacy as it is," Gray said. "We know that. That's the way it should be. You're absolutely entitled to privacy until your life is at stake, or someone else's life is at stake.
"We're working through all the privacy pieces so we have a comfort level that everybody's consistent and respectful. So many people ask us, 'How do we get past privacy?' We don't. We incorporated it."
All participants sign non-disclosure agreements. Departments not involved in a discussion can't take notes. Names are only revealed in a case of agreed acute elevated risk.
The cost of the Prince Albert Hub is minimal. Each participant contributes as a function of their job with a given agency. In concert with the day-to-day operation of the Hub, Prince Albert established a permanent COR (centre of responsibility) program that employs Hunter and two tactical analysts to identify and address big-picture, systemic problems and solutions.
For example, Gray currently employs a "Person Matrix," designed by IT staff at the Prince Albert police force, which uses a weighted statistical formula -- a certain amount of points allotted to a victim, arrests, warrants, etc., using multipliers for age (the lower the age, the higher the multiplier).
It's a work-in-progress, but then so are the Hub and COR. But the results to date have been eye-opening. Total service calls dropped 1.8 per cent in 2011 and a further 2.9 per cent in 2012 (a drop for the first time in over a decade).
Violent crime fell 4.9 per cent in 2011 and dropped another 31.9 per cent in 2012, to 819 in 2012 from 1,260 cases in 2010.
Domestic violence was down 8.7 per cent in 2011, youth victimization fell 28 per cent in 2011 and a further 13 per cent in 2012. Further, public prosecutions were down 12 per cent in 2011 and dropped another 18 per cent in 2012.
"We're not fudging numbers, either," Hunter insisted. "It's apples and apples."
In addition, social services reported 86 families were diverted from intakes (meaning a file never had to be opened as a result of an intervention).
"I've never seen these reductions in 27 years," Kalinowski said. "There's something there. This isn't a fluke."
According to Dr. Shelley Storey, a school principal before being seconded to COR, one reason for traction is the method of intervention.
"We're offering support as opposed to apprehension," Storey said. "And we're not telling them what to do. We're offering services and letting them know."
Added addictions counsellor Maria Lloyd: "I thought we were really disjointed as agencies until we started Hub. We realized how connected our clients were to other agencies. They were, we weren't. It's been so much more effective."
Gray considers success more practically.
"We don't even know what that is yet," he said. "With Hub, success is when they (at-risk individuals) invite us in. They haven't closed the door on us."
When former chief McFee imported and established Community Mobilization in Prince Albert, the goal from the start was to be able to "franchise" the model to adapt Hubs to any community, just like a fast-food franchise.
As a result, there are more community-mobilization projects sprouting up on the Saskatchewan prairie than McDonald's -- at least, after Premier Brad Wall became a huge proponent of the innovation in Prince Albert. McFee is now the province's deputy minister of corrections, public safety and policing and overseeing the new implementation of Hub projects in nine (and counting) different Saskatchewan municipalities. Kalinowski, who was McFee's right-hand man in Prince Albert, is now working with the province to help establish the Hubs and spread the word.
Kalinowski said he would "stake his reputation" on the effectiveness of what's being dubbed "the Prince Albert Experiment." Without interventions, "there would have most certainly have been deaths," he insisted.
"It's a fundamental shift in thinking. It's a paradigm shift. It's all about the balance. It's the enforcement piece, the education piece and the prevention piece. And they all have to work simultaneously."
And the future?
"There's no limits," Kalinowski said. 'We're creating safer, healthier communities where we haven't had that before -- or, at least, an idea of how we can get there. We're really starting to cut that stuff in the ankles."
The eyes of Winnipeg's police chief light up at the mention of Prince Albert, or ex-chief Dale McFee.
For most of his career -- and notably since being named the city's top cop last November -- Devon Clunis has preached a philosophy of prevention through social development. But it's not easy to find the choir. Why? It's not that sexy, for starters. And it doesn't involve hiring platoons of new officers and equipment. Besides, it's a pitch veteran officers have heard too many times before.
Throw in phrases like "crime prevention through social development," and eyes glaze over faster than a Tim Hortons old-fashioned.
"Cops don't believe anybody but other cops," noted Sgt. Kelly McLean, a 27-year veteran in Prince Albert, "because we're lied to all the time. McFee sold this program to 95 per cent of the cops in this building in nine months. We saw that it worked. Show me. That's what guys want."
That's exactly what Clunis wants, too. During a recent string of meet-the-public forums in recent months, Clunis has consistently hinted at a more "balanced" and "holistic" approach to crime.
"When I first starting talking about crime prevention through social development, it really wasn't catching on," Clunis said in a recent interview. "Then we had a conference and brought in Dale McFee, and I sat there with a huge smile on my face because everything he was saying, I was saying.
"But sometimes what do we do? We wait to see who's done it before we really start to adopt it. I think it's definitely adaptable. I think we can put our own Winnipeg or Manitoba tweak to it. But the concept is easily transferable. It just requires the commitment of all levels of government."
Indeed, Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan confirmed the province is already planning on introducing policies similar to those being implemented in Saskatchewan by McFee.
"We're taking some lessons from what's happening in Prince Albert," the minister said. "We're now developing a made-in-Manitoba solution using the basic principles, which is that police cannot be the entire solution. And that at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night, we can't continue to have police taking all the responsibility for dealing with social issues.
"We've got a lot of good agencies in that area, we've got support in families services, in justice. Everybody needs to be at the table working together to prevent crime from happening in the first place."
Swan acknowledged the Saskatchewan model couldn't have proceeded without the province's endorsement and support, adding, "In the weeks to come, we'll be able to give more details on exactly what our version is going to look like here. We're continuing to work with various agencies and we're hoping to announce something positive pretty soon."
University of Manitoba criminologist Rick Linden will tell you the "holistic," more prevention-oriented approach to crime represents a fundamental shift from decades of getting-tough-on crime strategies that have only succeeded in filling jails and saddling governments with billions of dollars in social services and enforcement spending.
It's groundbreaking, Linden said. It's also common sense.
"There's nothing in this that would surprise our grandmothers, is there?" said Linden, who also heads a civilian commission overseeing the WPS. "(But) it's a model that makes sense to people. It's going to be increasingly popular around the country. Among people who are into where policing is going in the future, this is one of the directions that most of us would say is where a lot of departments are going to start looking.
"The ideas aren't revolutionary, but the application is."
Grandma could figure out the government motivation for change, too. It's money. Hunter, the program's executive director in Prince Albert, argues the long-term financial savings of prevention programs can result in "billions" in savings. That's to be determined.
Regardless, Linden said such strategies need the full muscle, and seed money, of federal and provincial governments.
"You have to give them resources and give them leadership," Linden said, alluding to the Saskatchewan model. "If you don't do that, don't expect magic things to happen."
Both Swan and Clunis stressed that enforcement will remain the focus of police work. Still, Clunis's views on crime prevention through social development were formed years ago from personal experience -- both as a North End kid and, later, a cop.
Clunis emigrated with his family from Jamaica at age 12 in 1975. He had some trouble adapting to the new country, trying to fit in while attending St. Johns High School. "I used to play basketball in this gym," he told a public forum at Elmwood High School.
He spent his early years on the force in the North End. Now, whether it's Chalmers Avenue or Sinclair Street, Clunis is comfortable standing in front of residents, fielding questions from grandmothers concerned about prostitutes in front of their houses or the lack of visible police on their blocks at night.
This land is foreign no more.
"I grew up in the same environment as many of these kids," he explained at the Elmwood gathering. "The difference was, I had caregivers who really cared about me. In addition to that, I had teachers who took the time to get involved with my life."
Years later, Clunis was patrolling the same neighbourhood streets where he was raised.
"After eight or nine years -- simply chasing the bad guys and arresting them -- I had a bit of an epiphany," he recalled. "I realized that, yes, I was arresting bad guys, but really some of them weren't that bad.
"They were kids. And when I would sit them down to talk with them and really ask them questions, like, 'Why did you do that?' their response was, 'I don't know.' "
This is just sad, Clunis concluded. These kids were making bad decisions, mostly due to bad influences or, worse, no influence at all.
"Why aren't we doing more to prevent that?" the future chief wondered. "When I look back on my life, if I didn't have educators step into my life and provide the right encouragement, reinforce the right principles, I could have been one of those kids who could have very easily fallen through the cracks.
"I was shaking my head and thinking, 'Are we really accomplishing the greater good; creating a safer city, a safer culture, a safer environment? I realized, 'no'. But simply policing and going out and arresting the bad guy, that alone will not create the environment we want. We're still so much engaged in the apprehension and suppression. We haven't focused on prevention."
They came to the same conclusion in Glasgow. The same conclusion in Prince Albert. And the same conclusion in a gymnasium in Elmwood.
"I know changing a culture takes time and effort, but I don't see an option," the chief said. "If we don't do this now, in a few years I think it will be too late."