By Kathy McGrath

Last month, 43 Division Police Superintendent David Rydzik spoke about local law enforcement issues. This month, Rydzik, who also heads up the mental health and addictions strategy for the Toronto Police, explains how partnerships with community organizations are vital to modern policing.

Superintendent David Rydzik’s lengthy career can be divided into two distinct areas: investigative work and community work. In the early years, he patrolled the city, did undercover assignments and worked in the major crimes unit and the drug squad.

“The first part of my career all I did was arrest bad guys,” he said. “I never really had much use for community work because I didn’t really understand it.”

That changed in the 2000s when he took an assignment at 55 Division with the community response unit. “I worked there for seven years and I learned a lot,” he said. “I realized that as much as it’s important to make arrests, it’s also important that the community back you in doing so.”

Rather than responding to immediate crime, community response officers deal with longer-term issues. They also frequent the Toronto community housing neighbourhoods and do crowd control at parades and demonstrations.

The program was expanded in 2013 to include neighbourhood community officers who make a long-term commitment to work in a smaller geographical area. “They get to know the community and the community gets to know them,” Rydzic explained.

“When I joined the force, there was next to no community outreach,” he said.  “But we have evolved as generations have changed. Our commitment and connection to the community has increased ten-fold.”

A major change has been in the treatment of people with mental health issues. In addition to increased mental health training for police officers, the force is working closely with social workers and community service agencies to provide support to those in distress.

For the past 15 years, Rydzik has been involved with, and currently oversees, the force’s Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams, matching police officers with crisis nurses. They ride as a pair in cars and respond to calls for people in distress.  The nurses wear special uniforms with bullet-proof vests; the officers wear altered uniforms that give them a less intimidating look.

“Our officers get two weeks of intensive training and then on-the-job training with the nurses,” Rydzik said. Thirteen of these teams work across the city to provide 14.5 hours of coverage per day.

The force has also teamed up with crisis workers from Gerstein Crisis Centre who triage calls involving people in crisis. “They will decide whether it’s something the police need to attend right away or whether a crisis team could be sent without the police,” Rydzik said.

The Toronto Police have also partnered with the city to pilot a new service model out of the TAIBU Community Health Centre in Malvern. Starting next month, teams of social workers and crisis workers, rather than cops, will respond to low-violence calls.

Another program that he is particularly proud of is the force’s FOCUS tables. A partnership between the police, the city and United Way, FOCUS stands for Furthering Our Communities by Uniting Services.

“A lot of calls we receive are really not a policing issue,” he explained. “An officer might go to a call where a mom says, ‘My son’s out of control. I don’t know what to do with him. I think he might be smoking drugs. His school work has dropped off. He’s not listening to the rules of the house.’ So, what are we going to do, arrest him? Give him a lecture?” 

Now, police can refer the family to one of the FOCUS tables linked with more than 130 social agencies. “We bring the case forward and we might get three or four hands going up saying, ‘We can help.’ It might be CAMH, an outreach worker, a housing agency. Within 24 hours that family will be contacted by those services. So instead of walking away, which is what we used to do, we can refer to services that can help.”

City-wide, 1,100 of the cases were brought to the FOCUS tables last year. “It’s been super successful and it’s something we wouldn’t have done years ago,” said Rydzik. “We recognize these partners are required in a holistic approach to keeping our communities safe.”

Finally, Rydzik mentions the Chief’s consultative committees, which he has been heavily involved with. They liaise with 12 community groups, including Black, Muslim, Chinese, French, south and west Asian, LGBTQS, Indigenous and youth groups. 

“I use those relationships to try and change the culture, here and in our communities,” he said. “My officers spend a lot of time trying to rebuild relationships in communities where they’ve been fractured.”