Shared responsibility only solution to social problems

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What does policing have to do with homelessness?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/07/2014 (2956 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What does policing have to do with homelessness?

Many people, both inside and outside the policing profession, have strong opinions about how the police should use their limited resources. Police leaders must continually evaluate and be responsive to changing community needs. The public deserves to know government resources are being used effectively.

The policing profession has struggled to balance enforcement and public-safety roles. Enforcement means effective crime investigation and upholding the laws. We need to solve crimes, bring offenders before the courts, deter offenders and gain justice for victims.

The other core mandate, keeping the peace and contributing to public safety, is less tangible but equally important. The police have a role in reducing the causes of crime. This is where we intersect with other service providers such as health, education, economic development, social work and child welfare.

Some have argued the police should only investigate crime and leave the social work to others. However, enforcing laws without addressing the root causes makes many problems worse. For example, we have learned imprisoning gang members only worsens their anti-social behaviour, unless prison terms come with sufficient programming and supports.

Similarly, the corrections system needs to be concerned with child welfare when children in care are becoming future prisoners.

The health-care system needs to be concerned with poverty when it correlates with poor diets and substance-abuse problems that lead to long-term health issues.

The universe is interconnected, and these social problems affect every element of society. Our barrier to working together to address these issues is in our focus of responsibility and the culture of liability in which our modern governance systems are entrenched. When tragic events have occurred in the past, agencies such as the police, child protection and health have often pointed fingers saying, “not our responsibility,” and they are all correct.

There are homelessness issues over which no agency has a clear mandate. We need to change our perspectives and start looking at social problems as belonging to everybody. Instead of saying, “That is someone else’s problem,” we need to say, “We are all in this together and these issues are everyone’s responsibility.”

Some community leaders have recognized this fundamental problem and are taking steps to correct it. In the police service, we call it creating a culture of safety, striving to shift the responsibility for serious social problems out of the no-man’s land between agencies and place it squarely where it belongs: with everyone.

In order to do this, WPS officers have become more involved in the public-safety side of policing and holistic approaches, seeking crime prevention through social development. While investigation and enforcement are important, we are also seeking to ensure everything we do solves problems.

The police can often use their influence and authority to bring parties together and to enhance collaboration. We are looking at social issues that affect crime, either directly or indirectly, and saying we all need to share responsibility, instead of deflecting it as we often have in the past.

We need to break out of our silos and all row in the same direction. In this way, we can reduce gaps and make the system work better. We can improve outcomes in economically challenging times without necessarily adding resources.

Policing has everything to do with homelessness, because when multiple systems fail to help a homeless person, the matter eventually becomes a police issue as well. Winnipeg has hundreds of homeless people who need a wide range of resources.

So now the police are sitting at tables they historically shunned. Everyone has a stake in social issues such as homelessness, and our only hope of fixing them is if we all work together.


Staff Sergeant Bob Chrismas is in his 25th year with the Winnipeg Police Service.

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