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Solving local problems with foreign answers

UofGH brings together international researchers with local professionals in Policing and Community Safety Forum

Dr. Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster in Belfast, Northern Ireland, jokes he’s ‘uncorrupted’ – that he still believes in evidence-based policy-making.  “Which is probably very utopian because policy typically doesn’t get made like that,” he says.  But the impetus, nonetheless, behind his recent research on community policing.

Dr. Byrne’s latest work looked into Peace Walls in Northern Ireland – a term given to the 80 or so physical barriers that segregate Catholics and Protestants in the city centre. 

“Toronto may not have Peace Walls in the sense of physical walls dividing communities – but here in Canada, and particularly in Toronto, you find parts of communities where people know not to go.  You may not have physical barriers, but you have other types of barriers.”

He explains, “Whether it be roads, whether it be motorways, whether it be bridges, you find that there are divisions often based on class, religion, or ethnicity.”

Justice professionals gather at UofGH

His research findings attracted more than 60 justice professionals to the University of Guelph-Humber from across the Greater Toronto Area, including Superintendent Peter Lennox, Unit Commander of 11 Division in West Toronto, who says he’s looking for ideas to apply locally. 

“Of course it’s true that we have virtual walls, if not literal ones,” says Supt. Lennox.  “For decades, we, in Toronto, have been looking at ways of knocking down those walls by increasing trust,” he says.

Dr. Byrne explains that trust and relationship-building – in essence, community policing – can only see success once peoples’ perceptions of policing changes – not a small order.  He offers an example:  “In Belfast, if a police officer comes to your door, it’s either to tell you somebody’s died, or to tell you something’s wrong.  We still associate the police with very negative things.”

Supt. Lennox agrees that trust is a complex issue as it remains one of Toronto’s biggest challenges:  “It means not only the desire to do the right thing, but also the capacity to do the right thing.”  It is this capacity that Supt. Lennox is now seeking in academia.

Policing and academia

“More and more, policing is looking to academia for research, for observations – maybe even for answers,” says Glenn Hanna, Assistant Program Head of Justice Studies at the University of Guelph-Humber.

He says this trend in policing has evolved as a result of increased public scrutiny:  “[In the past], I think we had a tendency to go with our gut feeling – what we thought was right.  What academia brings to the table is evidence or research that can then help to formulate policy.” 

With this increased focus on evidence-based policy coupled with pro-active community policing, Supt. Lennox offers those interested in policing today a word of advice:  “[Students] should be doing everything they can to develop their ability for critical thought and problem-solving.  We need people who are capable of carrying the police into the next generation of relationships with the community.”

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