By Chet Greason
Steve Cousins’ tenure as chair of St. Marys’ Police Services Board (PSB) has expired and he will not be seeking an extension. Vice chair Henry de Young will be taking his place in the interim until elections are held in January.
“It’s time to do something else,” Cousins told the Journal Argus.
The former chair recognizes that his time overseeing the board has led to some major changes in terms of strategy and effectiveness.
“With policing, you’re looking for a Goldilocks solution,” he explains. “Too many police, and they start interfering with the everyday lives of your citizens. Not enough, and they simply won’t be there when they’re needed.”
Cousins said finding this fine balance was a major focus of his time on the board, and he believes PSB members achieved it through innovative ideas like hiring School Resource Officer Constable Julie Towton.
“The school officer program that we launched is extremely important,” he said. “It’s preventative policing as opposed to failure policing.” Failure policing, he explains, is when a call for service comes in only when something bad has happened.
Cousins says having Officer Towton at the schools is a more strategic way of policing. “She’s focusing on building relationships and coaching...The African proverb says ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Police are an aspect of that.”
Another area in which Cousins feels his board made headway is in budgeting. He says his early tenure on the board included tough negotiations, with the Perth OPP detachment seeking a $400,000 increase. “We hammered away at it...and ended up with $1.5 million in savings over five years.”
Indeed, that tough negotiating is showing its worth, as other municipalities seem to be hurt by the rising cost of policing in Ontario. MPP Randy Pettapiece mentioned it specifically at a press conference in Rannoch on Sept. 21, and de Young, standing in for Cousins at last Wednesday’s PSB meeting, said a recent conference held for police board members was rife with complaints.
“The mayor of Tillsonburg was wound up about police cost,” reported de Young, who added that 29 per cent of that community’s budget apparently goes to policing. “The rep from Lakeshore said ‘police cost is killing us.’ They’re putting off needed maintenance in order to cover it.”
Comparatively, only 16 per cent of St. Marys’ budget goes towards the OPP. “It’s key to remember it’s about common sense, not bureaucracy,” says Cousins of budget negotiating. “More cost, more overhead, more bodies...we have to ask, what is the benefit?...It’s about getting the right performance for the right price.”
Instead of simply paying more money for more police, the police board under Cousins vied for more hands-on, community-driven policy. “And the statistics are going the right way,” he said, noting statistical reductions in things like property damage and vandalism.
Cousins was also a champion of the idea of a storefront police station; one that is more accessible to citizens. “It’s important to the town for the police to be visible...to be front and centre, not hidden away.”
The town is still looking for a new police station. Currently, the former station, located in the post office, sees minimal use since that building went up for sale. Police now report to the detachment headquarters in Sebringville before beginning a shift in St. Marys.
Dubbed “Fortress St. Marys” by councillor and PSB member Tony Winter at last week’s meeting, the former station was notoriously difficult for citizens to access. Visitors were directed to a phone in the lobby which would patch them through to the dispatch in Sebringville. Officers would descend the staircase if the situation warranted it.
“Police need to be involved with citizens. I don’t care how busy they are,” says Cousins. “We need boots on the ground. It’s about talking to people and intel.”
Cousins also stressed his support for the OPP officers who live and work in St. Marys. “Those guys are top drawer professionals...the rank and file guys. I’m very happy with what we have in St. Marys.”
It was a sense of civic duty, along with a touch of curiosity as to how the system works, that first led Steve Cousins to apply for the job of chair of the PSB. The board is now looking to fill two seats, Cousins’ and another left by provincial appointee Celina Thomas-Hicks, vacated earlier in the year.
Anyone interested in applying should fill out an application found on the website of the Ontario Public Appointments Secretariat, www.pas.gov.on.ca.
In the meantime, Cousins says the town is in good hands under interim chair Henry de Young.