Man kneels on boat.

Homegrown help

Police support role capitalizes on community connections

Cst. Norman Prentice is already calming the waters in his hometown of Beechy, Sask. While on duty this June, he helped rescue a couple stranded on a personal watercraft far from shore. Credit: Courtesy Cst. Norman Prentice

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For Norman Prentice, becoming an RCMP officer seemed like the perfect job. Except for one unavoidable catch — he didn't want to move.

After spending 31 years in the small town of Beechy, Sask., the thought of uprooting his life and family for a job posting across the country just didn't make sense.

And so he resigned himself to the fact that maybe police work wasn't the right fit for him. That is, until he spotted a job posting at his local RCMP detachment describing a new role in police support: the community constable.

"At my age I decided I could do it," says the 52-year-old Prentice. "The biggest thing is that I'd never have to move. The people in my community were very excited for me."

The job posting attracted applicants from the Northwest Territories, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, where the position is being piloted. Men and women of all ages, cultures and backgrounds applied for the job — some with policing experience, others with no training at all.

The first troop of community constables graduated in February 2016, with each new officer returning to his or her local detachment. They'll use their newly acquired skills — combined with their community connections — to police the places they call home.

A familiar face

The RCMP decided two years ago to create the community constable position. Different from general duty police officers, known as regular members, the community constable fills a new niche.

"You're getting someone from your community who wants to be there," says Mike Lahache, who works as a policy analyst at the RCMP's National Crime Prevention Services (NCPS). "It's somebody who intimately knows the community and somebody who knows the people."

The position is aimed at those with an involved and established presence in their communities. The average age of the first troop of community constables is around 40 — much older than most cadets who train at Depot, the RCMP training academy in Regina, Sask.

Community constables complement and support the work of police officers, with a greater focus on community engagement and crime prevention. The program takes advantage of the roots recruits have made and the reputation they've developed within their neighbourhoods, with the promise that they'll return home following their training.

Since regular members are stationed and redistributed to new detachments across the country periodically, they rarely have time to adjust to their surroundings, settle their families and get to know residents. This has an impact on local community members, who must adapt to the constant turnover and new faces.

"It can be hard on communities," says Jordan Saucier, who also works as a crime prevention policy analyst with NCPS. "The community constable program provides a long-term presence in the community, and a face that people will know to go to."

Many of the program's recruits have lived in their communities for many years, and plan to stay there well into the future. As a father of two and a local businessman running two grocery stores with his wife, Prentice is an established figure in Beechy. He's also served as a volunteer firefighter, an on-call primary care paramedic and a coroner for local detachments.

"I know about 90 per cent of people in the area," says Prentice. "With my history, I hope I've earned the respect of the people at home. And that's going to help with this new role."

All-purpose position

The community constable is designed to perform almost all of the same tasks a regular member does. They'll act as first responders on scenes, drive police vehicles, carry weapons, visit schools and wear the same uniform as RCMP police officers — yellow-striped pants and all.

"They look and feel just like a regular member," says Lahache. "We wanted the position to be as flexible as possible."

The one thing community constables won't do, however, is lead investigations. The nature of their mandate places more emphasis on crime prevention and community policing, rather than solving crime. As a result, they receive 21 weeks of training — three weeks fewer than regular members.

Many of the freshly graduated constables will use their new arsenal of skills to focus on crime prevention, especially among children and youth in their communities.

"The idea of being proactive and what it could mean for policing really excites me," says Cst. Trina Brace, a community constable from Moosomin, Sask. "I'm hoping to get into the schools and get out there so people can see my face, and let people know if they have issues, they can approach me."

The 43-year-old woman had previously dabbled in law enforcement, working with the Canada Border Services Agency in Saskatoon for eight years before moving to Moosomin. In the small town of 3,000, Brace began working at the Moosomin RCMP detachment as a clerk, where she thrived on interactions with the community.

"I always tried to talk my detachment commander into taking me out into the community more," says Brace. "I was really wanting to get out in the public in-person rather than talking to people on the phone."

Despite working in the detachment office, Brace had never seriously considered becoming an RCMP officer. As a mother of three with a family to consider, she says she didn't want to move or divide up her family. So when she noticed the community constable job posting on the RCMP's Facebook page advertising stationary, long-term community police work, "It seemed like the perfect fit."

"Because of my other activities — with the school community council, coaching sports and as a board member for the family resource centre — I've already got a strong base relationship with the people in the community and in the surrounding area," she says.

Now, Brace hopes to use the connections she's established over the past 11 years living and working in Moosomin to focus on combating drug activity in schools and property crime in the streets.

Filling the gap

Whether it's in a big city, small town or rural area, community constables bridge gaps in cultural understanding so police can better meet local needs.

Brandon, Man., has a large multicultural population with many new immigrants. Cst. Samuel Oyenuga just returned home there as a newly graduated community constable. He hopes to use his own experiences and background as an African-Canadian to connect with the current community and help any newcomers who may arrive.

"Being someone from a different culture with a different background, I bring something different to the table," says Oyenuga. "I have a knowledge and understanding of how people feel when they move to a different country and try to settle into a new culture. I have experiences so I know how to advise people and I can send people in the right direction to deal with any issues they may have."

Oyenuga came to Canada from Nigeria in 2006 to pursue post-secondary education in Winnipeg. Upon graduating, he was inspired to pursue a career in law enforcement and moved to Brandon in 2010 to work as a corrections officer. When he noticed the community constable position, he thought it would be the right fit and applied.

"When I came to work with the RCMP, I didn't have to start making the connections because I already have these contacts," he says. "Most of the guys I'm working with in Brandon are thankful that they don't have to teach me everything — I already know the area and I know the people."

Through his work as a corrections officer, Oyenuga made connections with the probations office, the John Howard Society for released prisoners, many non-governmental organizations, the Brandon Police Service Mobile Crisis Unit and the Brandon Regional Hospital.

"I can help let the community know that I'm here to stay and that there's continuity of service," he says. "It's important that there's someone who actually knows the community, someone who has a connection, someone who knows the culture and someone who can teach new members about the community."

Looking forward

The graduating troop of 15 community constables returned to their respective home communities in March. Both the new graduates and the communities they come from are eager to see positive changes coming on the horizon.

"I've had two schools approach me asking to give talks," says Brace, who is already setting up school visits.

Similarly, many people in Prentice's hometown are anxious to have him back to deter small crimes. He says thefts have been happening lately from his neighbours' garages.

"A couple guys have said, 'Your presence will be nice, if people know you're in town and around, maybe things like that won't happen.' "

The community constable program is slated for review by the RCMP within the next few years, and there is already interest in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the Yukon. If the program is a success, it will be extended across Canada.

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