Where you can't get away with anything
'Strict' cops make Caledon, Ont., Canada's safest place--for now
KATE LUNAU | March 12, 2008 |
In a local community centre on a weekday afternoon, roughly 30 elderly residents of Caledon, Ont. — a town of 58,000 people just 40 km northwest of Toronto — gather to play euchre. Marjorie Slack leads the group in the national anthem and Lord's Prayer, then says: "I guess we'll play cards," and a happy din fills the room. Like many others, 79-year-old Slack has deep roots in this town: she moved here over 50 years ago after marrying a local dairy farmer.
Of the 100 biggest cities or regions in Canada, Caledon is the safest. In 2006, the most recent year for which there's annual data, it ranked the lowest — 107 per cent below the national average — for a score combining six crimes (murder, sexual assault, breaking and entering, vehicle theft, aggravated assault, and robbery). Caledon's overall crime score has improved: in 2001, it was 74 per cent below the national average. And in 1996, it was 55 per cent below (in both those years, it was the fifth safest of the 100 communities surveyed). The Caledon detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police is responsible for about 70,600 people, according to Statistics Canada. Incredibly, with just 94 police officers per 100,000 people — far below the national average of 195 — over 90 per cent of all violent crimes here are solved.
How to explain it? Mayor Marolyn Morrison credits the Caledon OPP and residents in equal measure. Local police "recognize that a safe community has to bring everybody together," Morrisson says. Several times a year, the mayor goes door-to-door with detachment commander Inspector Andy Karski. Despite their small numbers, police officers are extremely visible here, putting in 6,000 hours of foot patrol in 2007 (up from 600 in 2006). Local police have 100,000 interactions with the public per year. "Last year," Inspector Karski says, "we had 12 public complaints."
In Caledon, restorative justice (which brings suspect and victim together with a mediator instead of a court judge) has been used extensively since 2006 to resolve non-violent incidents, from neighbour disputes to vandalism. "It gives the victim a voice," Karski says. And "the suspect has to sit there, and listen to it." Of all the cases in which restorative justice has been used, he says, the Caledon OPP has never had a negative follow-up interaction with the suspect again.
Just a stone's throw from Toronto, Caledon is still home to many functioning farms. But rows of stately houses speak to the town's wealth — and encroaching subdivisions tell of its growth. Canadian icons Farley Mowat, Robertson Davies and Norman Jewison have all called Caledon home. Adult residents have a median income of about $32,900, compared with $24,800 across Ontario. The population is overwhelmingly white and English-speaking (almost half of all residents are third-generation Canadians or more).
But boredom can breed its own set of problems. Across town from where the seniors' group plays cards, teenagers gather at the local Tim Hortons. When asked why Caledon is so safe, 17-year-old Will Krisman smirks. "It's because the cops are so strict," he says. The town lacks a public transportation system, leaving many teens effectively stranded. "Unless you have a driver's licence," says Kayla Nesbitt, 17, "there's nowhere to go." Despite several programs aimed at youth, petty crimes (from vandalism to drugs) remain a concern.
But Caledon won't be a sleepy hollow forever. The population is expected to jump 48 per cent by 2021, and the town already has growing pains. Nesbitt speaks of "racial fights" erupting at her high school between locals and teens from nearby Brampton (where 60 per cent of residents are first-generation Canadians), who are bused in to attend class. Affordable housing is already scarce: the average detached home costs $463,700, and the town lacks a shelter. Despite a range of services (including ESL classes, pay-for-use transportation and a food bank) offered by local not-for-profit Caledon Community Services, it remains "very hard to be poor in Caledon," CCS executive director Monty Laskin says.
Karski shares some thoughts on why nine of the top 10 most dangerous communities surveyed by Maclean's are in the West. "When a city goes through a lot of growth," he says, "it often outgrows its support mechanisms." While robberies are rare in Caledon, Brampton has seen a spike. So the Caledon OPP is offering a robbery prevention seminar for local retailers, free of charge. As Caledon continues to grow, Karski emphasizes, "I don't want to keep up. I want to be ahead."