Law enforcement have long acted under the accepted belief that the presence of police is intrinsically tied to the prevalence of crime: More officers on the streets means people are less likely to break the law.

But in Yellowknife, where a brewing clash between the rights of business owners, residents, and the needs of a vulnerable downtown population have come to a head in recent weeks — likely fuelled by violence near the sobering centre and day shelter, which has exasperated neighbours along 50 Street — what does police visibility actually do?

The question was posed by city councillor Shauna Morgan to Insp. Alex Laporte, city’s top cop, during a discussion of Yellowknife RCMP’s priorities for the year ahead — part of an annual review of the detachment’s objectives.

Police visibility, conducting patrols downtown and in other areas of the city where “visibility is required,” has again been identified by council as a top policing priority — along with reducing the number of frequent emergency service users and tackling substance abuse through “proactive” enforcement.

Brendan Burke/NNSL photo.
Coun. Shauna Morgan, background, said it’s important to question assumptions about the impact and effectiveness of police visibility in the downtown. (Insp. Laporte in foreground).
April 15, 2019.

Morgan, who stressed she wasn’t criticizing police visibility as a priority, said it’s important to ask questions about the impact of the practice.

“I think sometimes when we say visibility there’s an assumption that … having some powerful-looking person in a uniform is a) going to make people feel safe and b) going to stop bad people from doing bad things,” said Morgan.

“We have to question those assumptions sometimes and question the effectiveness,” she continued.

For marginalized and oft-victimized members of the community, the sight of an officer in uniform does not inspire feelings of safety.

“We need to change that,” she said, adding that it sounds like the detachment is trying to do just that.

Laporte, who fielded questions and feedback from councillors on policing priorities following a monthly presentation of RCMP statistics, said that when officers are patrolling downtown, they’re doing more than just making themselves visible.

They’re shaking hands with residents, visiting businesses and building relationships — part of a “quality” approach to patrols he encourages his officers to embrace, said Laporte.

Brendan Burke/NNSL photo. Yellowknife RCMP officer Pierre-David Croteau, left, and the detachment’s top cop Insp. Alex Laporte pose for an impromptu photo while on patrol in the alley behind the Sobering Centre/Day Shelter last week.
April 12, 2019.

Morgan said part of the need to question assumptions surrounding visibility is a concern that the presence of police on city streets simply drives crime and violence into “the shadows.”

On April 9, a chaotic scene erupted near the intersection of 51 Avenue and 50 Street after an alleged assault shut down a stretch roadway in front of the joint sobering centre and day shelter, sending two to hospital with injuries.

One man has since been charged with assault and assault causing bodily harm in connection with the incident.

Outside council chambers on Monday, Laporte told Yellowknifer the daytime altercation was an example of crime coming out the shadows.

Following the incident, as Mounties appealed for witnesses and searched for suspects, more officers were seen patrolling the area.

Brendan Burke/NNSL photo. A man is detained by Mounties in front of the downtown Reddi Mart on April 10, one day after an alleged assault involving several people shut down a stretch of roadway along 50 Street.
April 10, 2019

Downtown patrols are nothing new, Laporte told Yellowknifer, but members are listening and adapting to evolving concerns in the area — and to specific indents, including the last week’s alleged assault.

“We did engage our members in uniforms and plain clothes and said ‘hey, throughout all your other priorities — let’s be visible,’” he said.

Since the new year, RCMP have been more visible in the downtown core, according to figures provided by Yellowknife RCMP.

Mounties conducted 59 patrols downtown last month, which was nine more than in February, and 16 more than the number recorded in January.

In February, 13 patrols were conducted in the area around the sobering centre and day shelter. Last month, 20 of the nearly 60 downtown patrols were dedicated to the same area.

The spike in patrols is on pace with a detachment and city-wide upswing.

There were 726 “visibility patrols” conducted in Yellowknife last year — more than double the amount recorded in 2017. In Ndilo in 2018, police mounted 287 visibility patrols, compared to 96 carried out the year before. The number of visibility patrols in Dettah — 243 — remained unchanged from 2017 to 2018, according to RCMP statistics offered to council.

Brendan Burke/NNSL photo. A Yellowknife RCMP officer hops back into his vehicle after stopping along 50 Street on April 11.
April 11, 2019



Brendan Burke

As the Yellowknifer’s crime reporter, it’s my job to keep readers up to speed on all-things “cops and courts” related. From house fires and homicides to courtroom clashes, it’s my responsibility...

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