Herb Sutton: Building a safer North Battleford

Four years ago, North Battleford was in turmoil. By September 2013, there had been three shootings in the city of under 14,000 residents. The public's concern over crime even prompted City officials to host a public information session Sept. 30 at the Don Ross Centre to quell fears and set up the Neighbourhood Watch. Two days prior to the information session a man was arrested for sexual assault and the morning of the City-planned meeting on public safety, a man was found stabbed to death at a downtown hotel.

In a column in the News-Optimist, John Cairns described the meeting between the public and RCMP and City representatives as "tense and confrontational."

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Also in attendance that evening was then-director of Light of Christ School Division, Herb Sutton.

"It was packed," Sutton recalled. "People were upset and demanding the City and the RCMP do something."

The City did do something, first by putting in place a Community Safety Plan and next by hiring Herb Sutton as North Battleford's newly-created position of community safety co-ordinator in 2014.

Sutton had already announced his retirement from the school division and, after 33 years in education, was looking for a change, though he didn't know what. After a meeting with the City manager, Mayor and RCMP inspector to pitch the job to Sutton, he was contracted by the City from August to December "to see how it would go." Now three years on, Sutton's contract has been renewed until the end of 2019. With his monthly report made to city council updating them on committees, Citizens on Patrol and other programs, Sutton has become the defacto face of safety in North Battleford. Though he’s quick to not take any credit he sees as undeserved and he would prefer to stay behind the scenes. 

“I’m not one who's ever sought the limelight,” he said.

The City representatives were looking “for someone to be the catalyst" for changing how North Battlefords' widely publicized issues could be tackled and Sutton was their answer. Straight away, he requested current research to guide him in his new role.

“We need a research based framework to work from,” he explained. “Instead of thinking, OK, let’s hire more police, increase enforcement and that will reduce crime, let’s take a look at what the research is saying.

“And that’s where this whole notion of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design comes in.”

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED, as its name suggests, is an approach to deter criminal activity through elements of design. Before CPTED was officially adopted by City administration, Sutton planned to attend training in Saskatoon at the City of Saskatoon’s CPTED department. In addition to Sutton attending, the City of North Battleford also sent three others for training and they became the first four members of the CPTED Review Committee. The following year, City administration had 20 more individuals attend CPTED training in Saskatoon “to start to build that capacity,” said Sutton. Ultimately, he said, his intention is to help build the foundation of understanding and using the research at hand with the end goal allowing him to loosen the reins.

One recent recommendation resulting from the principals of CPTED was the inclusion of formalized neighbourhoods in the City’s Downtown Master Plan that was unveiled to the public at the North Battleford Public Library at the beginning of March. 

“Developing formal neighbourhoods, getting people to know each other,” said Sutton, “that’s all part of the research base.”

With formalized neighbourhoods, residents are motivated to get to know one another, fostering fellowship and a mutual interest in making the community safe. Safety audits have also been carried out, with feedback from volunteers shedding light on ways the City can improve safety, including “simple things like improving lighting and trimming trees to increase natural surveillance."  

“I like to think some of that work is paying off. I think it helps even the people living in those neighbourhoods to say, we're prepared to work with you.”

“And” so far, noted Sutton, “we've had a good response from neighbourhoods to come out and help.”

Another model Sutton has facilitated the City in adopting is SAGE – standing for Safety, Acceptance, Guidance, Empowerment – “which talks about building safety from within the community.” 

North Battleford is the first urban centre in all of Canada to adopt the SAGE model, following in the footsteps of 53 First Nations. Using research published from Public Safety Canada and their model titled “Towards a Strong Future,” a key goal of SAGE is to bring together federal, provincial, municipal and First Nation governments in a regional steering committee “to open the doors and build relationships [and] let them know what we’re doing in the city to try to address community safety.”

As the first community safety co-ordinator, Sutton has been at the forefront of establishing committees and adopting innovative safety models in North Battleford, with SAGE leading the City in some striking “firsts.”

“The City is currently starting a three-year project with Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs around regional economic development,” said Sutton. Recently a meeting took place between the mayor, city manager, two city councillors, two chiefs from surrounding communities and representatives from BATC to foster a connection based on mutual understanding and mutual respect.

Sutton added that he didn’t know of such a meeting ever taking place in North Battleford before. "It's a big change where we can start to see building that mutual understanding and respect," he noted.

“Entering into formal agreements and partnerships between the city and tribal council is huge.”

Agreements and partnerships between surrounding communities and the city is a defining feature of Sutton’s role as community safety co-ordinator. At its most basic level, being the community safety co-ordinator is about “building connections,” said Sutton.

In practice, this translates into attending interagency meetings with surrounding First Nations Moosomin, Saulteaux, Sweet Grass, Red Pheasant and Mosquito. “That work,” he added, “is about building relationships and communication between the City and First Nation communities” and “to think about North Battleford more as a regional community. 

“There’s a lot of movement back and forth. A healthier North Battleford is good for surrounding communities and healthier surrounding communities are good for North Battleford.”

In addition to building connections between the city and rural areas, Sutton also facilitates connections between services within the community, such as a committee between mental health and addiction services and the school divisions.

These kinds of connections are to prevent what Sutton calls “social determinants that contribute to crime.” As the community safety officer, the change Sutton is effecting is through preventative measures and intervention. This means changing the social factors that lead individuals to commit crimes, such as housing and food insecurity and mental health and addiction issues.

One initiative that prioritizes prevention underway in the city is HUB, which is designed to bring together government agencies. North Battleford created HUB in 2012, following Prince Albert’s lead. At HUB, Sutton takes a backseat to representatives from government agencies, but records data for each meeting, which is then sent to a provincial database Building Partnerships to Reduce Crime. He first got involved with HUB while still with Light of Christ School Division when he was invited by former City Manager Jim Toye to attend a presentation in Prince Albert.

At this presentation, “they told a story about a young person who committed a murder when he was 16,” recalled Sutton. “When they went back and looked at his history, [they saw] he was a great kid in Grade 1 and Grade 2. Then all of a sudden, they start to see things slip. The family was involved with social services, but nobody connected the dots and he progressively went through the situation. Then he killed someone and was going to jail. So, the thinking was, what would have happened if he was eight and education had sat down with health and social services, who were all involved with his family, and connected him with services and intervened before it gets to that point?”

A recurring theme in Sutton’s work is not crime itself, but the societal issues that contribute to it. “Until we get at those root causes – housing insecurity, food insecurity, mental health, addictions – we're going to see the same problems,” he said.

And it’s not just up to those struggling to change their situation. “We have to mobilize the whole community to build that sense, as a community, we have to reach out to these people and help them,” said Sutton.

The City has largely encouraged community involvement to deter crime, with block parties to get to know your neighbours an essential principal of CPTED. Sutton also said residents interested in combating crime in their neighbourhoods can apply on the City’s website to join Citizens on Patrol. 

As community safety co-ordinator, Sutton said he has pride in being part of the team trying to make North Battleford a safe place to live.

“I really enjoy this work and I get to work with incredible people every day. I'm encouraged by that. I know that we’re still number one on the crime severity index, but I feel like we’re making some progress. It’s going to take some time, but it’s taken us a long time to get where we're at.”

Ultimately, for Sutton, as both a resident of North Battleford for 26 years who has raised his three children here and as part of a team spearheading safety in the community, the goal is to make North Battleford a place to be proud of.

“I want to be part of living in a community and creating a community where you see people who are vulnerable and you reach out to them.”

© Copyright Battlefords News Optimist

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