Jesse Ryder, a community safety officer for Kwanlin Dün First Nation, said the program is helping people in the community feel safer. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Kwanlin Dün community safety officers aim to build trust

‘They basically pledged to the community … that somebody would always answer the phone to hear them’

Last year, Jesse Ryder received a call from someone who said they heard a commotion at their neighbour’s home in Whitehorse’s McIntyre subdivision.

When he arrived, he found a man who had been badly assaulted and needed immediate help.

Ryder called the RCMP, but the response time was two hours. He and his partner called an ambulance and took photos to pass on to the police. When the victim declined to take the ambulance, they stayed until they found someone in the community who could look after him.

Ryder is a community safety officer (CSO) with the Kwanlin Dün First Nation. He can be spotted cruising around town in one of the First Nation’s CSO trucks, stopping to check in on people who have called him for help or to report a crime.

He’s not sure what would have happened if he and his partner hadn’t received a call about the disturbance that night, but he suspects it could have been a very different outcome.

“Maybe the guy (who assaulted him) could have came back. Or the injured person, he had pretty good head injuries and you know, could have bled out.”

The Yukon government has contributed $1.4 million to the three-year pilot program, which is now a year old.

“There’s been a mistrust of police with Indigenous communities and the CSO program has come a long ways to help improve that relationship,” said Don Rogers, the program’s justice manager and a retired RCMP officer.

Rogers said the program has resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of calls to the RCMP.

“They basically pledged to the community when (the CSO program) started that somebody would always answer the phone to hear them. And that’s what they’re doing.”

In 2015, KDFN, with input from residents, created a safety plan sparked by tragedy. A year earlier, 17-year-old Brandy Vittrekwa was beaten to death in the McIntyre subdivision. “That hurt the community really bad,” said Ryder.

Her violent death was the catalyst for tackling ongoing crime in the community. Since its launch last June, CSOs have fielded hundreds of calls from concerned Kwanlin Dün citizens for things like property crime, domestic issues, public intoxication and wildlife issues.

Ryder has been with the program since day one. Once he was hired, he participated in a five-week training course, which included lessons on conflict resolution, cultural sensitivity, cutural history, intergenerational trauma and report writing led by the Justice Institute of British Columbia.

“Slowly over time you could see people coming out more and just getting their feeling of safety and security back in the community. That’s huge. That’s big for me,” said Ryder.

CSOs are the “eyes and ears of the community,” said Rogers. Their job is to act as an intermediary between KDFN citizens and the RCMP. The CSOs will call the RCMP on someone’s behalf when requested or necessary. The RCMP is also called in to deal with cases involving violence or criminal offences.

Rogers and Ryder both stressed that CSOs are not replacements for police. But they said CSOs can handle some situations without involving the RCMP.

The program’s approach to dealing with intoxicated people, for example, is to offer them services such as addictions counselling.

“Often the RCMP would just come pick them up and lodge them in the drunk tank,” said Rogers. “Now, we can intervene and that person is not put into that system.”

In addition to counselling, CSOs can refer Kwanlin Dün citizens to various KDFN government services.

The four unarmed community safety officers can be reached 24-7. They patrol the neighbourhood in pairs, answering calls and offering safe rides home.

“Not only do they just go and drop them off but they go inside with them, they’ll make sure that they’re safe, they’ll make sure that either somebody is sober that will look after them,” said Rogers.

“And if they’re not, I know that (the CSOs) have sat with that person for an hour or an hour and a half and made sure that they got cleaned up, that they got fed, and that they were okay.”

Rogers said the CSOs have also played a large part in the RCMP’s investigations. They recently identified a stolen vehicle and were able to track down its owner through social media.

“So (the program is) not just affecting citizens of Kwanlin Dün, it’s affecting other citizens of Whitehorse as well,” Rogers said.

Rogers said the program will continue to grow. KDFN plans to apply for funding to keep it going beyond the three-year pilot. A new community safety coordinator is starting at the end of July, and there are plans to do more outreach with youth and create an elder visitation program.

“We had one elder … that had concerns about theft from her yard. So we were able to go out there and set up security cameras and talk to her about doing things that she can do around the property to be safer,” said Rogers.

Rogers is also hoping to create a database similar to the RCMP’s to determine peak volumes of calls and crime trends.

As a Kwanlin Dün citizen himself and member of the Wolf clan, Ryder said culture is an important part of the job. He smudges to decompress after a hard day and offers smudges to others who ask.

He said the job has given him a chance to interact with elders and get to know the community he returned to after spending most of his youth in Vancouver. The CSOs attend gatherings, from funerals to potlaches, community events and festivals.

“[I’ll] see an elder shopping and she’ll say, ‘Keep up the good work,’ or you know even just a smile and that’d be enough to brighten my day,” he said.

When he took the job he said he lost many friends, but a few have come around. He’s now a familiar face in the community, but it took some time to gain the trust of the people he wants to help.

“I just get out and speak with them,” he said. “Like, don’t talk to them with the window half closed type thing and just talk to them like a human being.”

Contact Kallan Lyons at kallan.lyons@yukon-news.com

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