How-To with Idil Burale: Building bridges for community safety

This is the first post in a new series on the WiTOPoli blog: a series of How-To posts with women who have made change in their communities by working with (and sometimes fighting against) the institutions that make our city work. These women inspire us and remind us that though the challenges to having our voices heard are many, they are most certainly not insurmountable.

By: Cherise Seucharan

How do we prevent crime instead of always having a reactive response to it?”

This was the question Idil Burale began to explore in the summer of 2012 when gun violence in her Rexdale community rose to an alarming high. Idil, a former MaRS Studio Y fellow and a columnist for Spacing.ca, worked to establish the Toronto Police Service’s Somali Liaison Unit. The initiative has reduced the crime rate through developing bonds between community members and police officers.

idil headshot

Step 1: Identify the issue

A longtime Rexdale resident, Idil had not been involved in her community until the gun violence in her neighborhood began making headlines. “I started recognizing a lot of Somali names in the news,” she said, referring to the almost bi-weekly reports of gun deaths that summer. She started asking questions, and was soon invited to a community meeting of mothers concerned about their children’s safety.

Step 2: Get involved

From that community meeting, an ad-hoc group called Positive Change was formed, with the goal of creating a safer neighbourhood for Somali youth.

The group created a 10-point policy for community change, and Idil involved her local MP Kirsty Duncan and MPP Mike Colle in the process, who then brought it to the federal level. However, the slow political process meant that they still were not seeing the immediate, community level change that was desperately needed.

“One thing that we could do with our two bare hands, that didn’t require money, was reaching out to our local police,” she said. The relationship between the community and the police of 23 Division in Etobicoke was tense, and fear of speaking to the police was major factor in the number of unsolved murders. For the safety of the community, it was clear to Idil and her collaborators at Positive Change that the relationship with police was in dire need of repair.

Step 3: Build a shared understanding

“We walked into our police division and we just had a frank meeting with them,” Idil explains. “We said that this is not working for us, and we don’t think its working for you either.” At the time, the Toronto Police Service was already developing a policing model that dedicated officers to high-risk neighbourhoods. Positive Change met with the two officers assigned to the Dixon area, and discussed how they could begin to develop a relationship.

The group brought the officers to community events, and set them up with cultural sensitivity training to better understand the community’s needs. The officers also got involved in local programs, such as running basketball programs for youth.  Some proved to be unexpectedly successful; an initiative in which officers helped to paint donated bikes was very popular with the young boys.

However, ingrained attitudes on both sides were still a barrier to building trust. Rexdale residents were suspicious that the officers were only there to collect information on them. The officers working in the community also struggled to work within a police culture that didn’t understand the type of “social work” they were doing. “It took a mind shift- not only for [the officers] but for the community,” Idil said.

Step 4: Improve continuously

Slowly, the project grew roots and the crime rate in the community fell dramatically. The project faced a major hurdle in 2013 when a big police raid intruded upon residents of Dixon Road. However, the local officers committed to rebuilding trust, and the continued success of the Somali Liaison Unit has attracted press coverage and political attention. The TPS has now extended the project for another two years, and scaled it across the entire service, reaching Divisions 31, 51, 12, and 32.

Idil has continued to work with the TPS, and is currently on the committee of the Policing and Community Engagement Review (PACER) which oversees improvements to policing.

You can do it!

Idil recommends that anyone with an interest in community safety to contact their local division, or attend the Community Police Liaison Committee, which occur every month at every police division. She is adamant that anyone with an interest in improving their community can make a positive contribution, no matter how small the act. “Political engagement is an everyday transaction,” she says. “You can build your city Monday through Sunday, at any time.”

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