Calgary Journal reporter rides along with police to look at community issues and crime solutions
What’s in a name?
Take Forest Lawn, for example.
Crime? Drugs? Prostitution? These seem to often be the words associated with this community in Calgary.
I recently got the chance to get a first-hand look from the inside of a police car to see what exactly happens in this neighbourhood.
I entered the District 4 Franklin Calgary Police Service Station at 5 p.m. sharp — you don’t want to be late for the law. It was a little chilly, but nothing a light sweater couldn’t handle. A couple of other people occupied the room while I waited, filing collision reports and other routine paperwork.
Const. Paul Cuthill, community liaison officer for District 4, which includes Forest Lawn, came to greet me. Cuthill, 37, has been at the District 4 station for three years and has been in the role of community liaison officer since September. He worked with the Kent Police Service near London for 13 years before moving to Calgary to continue his career.
In this role, Cuthill is not call-driven like other officers. The bulk of his work is put into building relationships within the communities that fall in his district to establish a point of contact if issues arise that don’t require 9-1-1 emergency assistance. This includes things like solving long-term disputes between neighbours.
After Cuthill gave me a couple of tips and a strict, “If I get out of the car to chase someone, do not run after me,” order, I received a jacket labeled to identify me as an observer, and reliable flashlight in hand, we walked out into the gated area to meet our patrol car for the night.
The middle console of our trusty Ford Crown Victoria transportation included buttons and switches, a keyboard, and touch computer screen. After a quick introduction to the system, in a whirl of flashing lights and a whine of the sirens, away we went.
First stop: Starbucks – not Tim Horton’s to my surprise. Our shift didn’t end until 3 a.m., so we had to be adequately caffeinated.
Since taking the role of community liaison officer, Cuthill has worked to identify the main issues within the communities in his district and implement the means to combat them.
One of the biggest challenges that the community of Forest Lawn faces, said Cuthill, is the reputation attached to it.
“Yes, there are certain aspects of this area that are rough,” he said. “But 99.9 per cent of the people who live here are good, hard-working people who are trying to do the best they can in the community that they have.”
Brenda Cosens, a resident of Forest Lawn for 37 years and president of the Greater Forest Lawn Block Watch, said that she has noticed the same stigma about the community.
“The place gets a lot of bad press, but there are a lot of good, upstanding, hard-working people,” she said. “Anything that happens east of Deerfoot and south of 16th Avenue gets called Forest Lawn because it used to be a town and it encompassed a lot of the area.
“People still think that Albert Park, Penbrooke and Dover are Forest Lawn. So for a community that has about maybe 8,000 people, we get blamed for an area of about 50,000 people,” she said.
What’s really going on?
The issues that Cuthill said he has decided to target in Forest Lawn are prostitution and drugs.
Targeting prostitution means first identifying where the women are most likely to work, Cuthill said.
“If you try to look at it from a business perspective, they’re selling a product,” he said. “Someone wants the product, so they need to be somewhere where they can sell it. So they have to walk the streets in a certain area where they’ll be seen.”
I was a little surprised that the prostitution stroll would be that active so early in the evening with the sun still just below its peak, but, as Cuthill explained, most of the women who are involved in prostitution use it as a means to fuel a drug addiction so they’ll work whenever they need the money.
We encountered one of these women known to Cuthill for prostitution within the first 10 minutes of our drive.
Cuthill pulled over and rolled down the window, he began by finding out her name and asking some routine questions: where she was going, what she was doing, if she’d seen some of the other girls recently.
She mumbled that she was going to see her sister, looking down and texting the whole time. It was amazing to me how quickly these women manufactured stories to justify being out. It also struck me just how ordinary these women looked: had Cuthill not known and pointed them out to me, I would have just assumed that they were walking down the street — quite possibly on their way to meet their sister.
“Been on any bad dates lately?” he then asked — a question I would find out he asked most of the women on a regular basis. He said that he was concerned for their safety and wanted to make sure they weren’t being abused.
What can be done?
Legally, Cuthill’s not allowed to charge these women unless they are in the act of prostitution, so one of the strategies he said he uses is simply getting to know them, treating them with the respect that they don’t normally receive. He said that this makes them become more likely to help when he’s looking for leads on other women or drug houses.
This is all part of the process, he said. It’s not a quick fix.
The police also rely heavily on the members of the community to report what’s going on in order to solve this problem.
“We have to understand that we can’t be everywhere all the time and the public is our best asset when it comes to eyes and ears on the ground,” Cuthill said.
The Greater Forest Lawn Block Watch is one set of those eyes and ears.
“The job of taking care of your community does not just belong to the police,” said Cosens. “That’s all of our jobs. We need to be the eyes and ears of the police, and when you see something, you phone; if you see something suspicious, you need to phone.”
At one of the Block Watch meetings that Cuthill regularly attends, a member brought up a concern of an abandoned shed on a condemned property that is possibly being used as shelter by a prostitute.
Cuthill took that information and added it to our patrol that night. We stopped by several times and got out to take a look around the shed, where he discovered a duffel bag containing simple toiletries and paperwork showing the occupant’s name.
We didn’t find the woman living out of the shed that night, but Cuthill said he made contact with her the next day.
Another thing that’s important for Cuthill is simply being present.
“You need to know what’s normal to know what’s not,” he said.
This translates to the targeting of drug houses as well, Cuthill added.
Throughout the night we also stopped by a couple of houses that are known for their drug affiliations.
Cuthill makes routine checks on these properties and runs license plates of cars that frequent them. He talks to individuals that he sees around the community with known drug-related offences as a means of “keeping them on their toes and making them uncomfortable,” he said.
The neighbours serve as an important asset for him in this regard. as well. One woman waved him over with a list of license plates she had recorded coming and going from one of the house.
This assistance isn’t uncommon, Cuthill said.
“People generally do like living here and they want to improve the environment they live in,” he added.
Why do these problems exist?
One of the reasons could be a set of socio-economic factors in this area. The City of Calgary’s Indices of Community Well-Being suggests that just under a third of the total population lives in low-income households.
Around six per cent of Forest Lawn’s adult population, ages 25 and over, are unemployed.
A little less than half of families with children are lone-parent families and just over 38 per cent of the adult population has not completed high school.
These could be contributing factors to the number of person crimes occurring, which is 31 for every 1000 individuals.
Carol Griffin, who has lived in Forest Lawn for 14 years and is the president of the Forest Lawn Community Association, said that she has noticed another factor.
“We have a transient neighbourhood; we have a lot of rentals in this neighbourhood, so there are people who come and go and don’t get involved,” she said.
Cosens said that she has noticed the same trend. “We have a lot of landlords who don’t maintain their property and don’t really care who they’re renting to as long as they can give them cash so they don’t have to pay income tax,” she said.
“If they wanted to own rental properties, and cared enough to take care of their properties, watch who they’re renting to and make checks on their property every once in a while, we wouldn’t have this problem here.”
This is what led to many of the problems in these houses, said Cosens. Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods, more commonly known as SCAN, is an agency used to curb crime in these residences.
It’s a provincial program, run through the sheriff’s department, Cosens said. They use civil law, so they are capable of doing different things than the police.
Cuthill said, “I would put them in the fantastic bracket of a resource for us. They have helped close down and eliminate problems in our zone, probably more than we have ever done, purely because they have more power and more sway within the courts.”
SCAN is alerted if there is suspicion of drug or other illegal activity in a house, typically informed by neighbours, and the tips remain completely anonymous. They do surveillance and investigate and if they find enough evidence, can get a warrant and evict people out of the house, Cuthill said.
Cosens added that if it’s bad enough, they could shut the house down for up to three months.
“In that case, it’s hitting the slum landlords in the pocketbook because they’re not getting their rent for three months,” she said. “You’re hoping that that they will learn a lesson and check on the next people better so that that doesn’t happen again.”
Cuthill said that he thoroughly enjoys his work in combating crime in these communities.
“It does give you the opportunity to help those who may not be able to help themselves,” he said. “It’s not so much of a quick-fix, it’s more of a long-term strategy, and that for me is very rewarding.”