The making of a murderer – and how to prevent it

J.P. Moczulski

This is Joe’s story.

At age 18, he was convicted of second-degree murder, accused of stabbing another boy to death.

Joe’s name isn’t real – police changed it to protect his privacy. But his story is. Police in Prince Albert, Sask., use it to illustrate their strategy.

This timeline traces Joe’s run-ins with police and social services through an infancy marked by domestic violence, alcoholism and abuse, a violent childhood and a series of petty-crime charges.

Early intervention, police maintain, could have prevented the murder years before it happened. The crime-prevention program is working so well, Anna Mehler Paperny reports, Toronto is adopting the same one in a new pilot project

1986 – Joe is born

Infancy

Agencies register both alcohol abuse and domestic violence at Joe’s home shortly after his birth. He’s moved in and out of foster care, but returns to his parents.

Age 2

Joe’s mother is hospitalized after a car accident involving alcohol intoxication. Joe and his siblings move in with their grandmother.

Age 4

Both parents go through treatment for their alcoholism. Joe and his siblings move back in with them.

Age 7

Joe’s mother stabs his father to death as the boy watches. She is sentenced to eight years in jail. All the children move in first with their grandmother, then their aunt.

Intervention point

The first intervention should have taken place when Joe was still an infant, when social agencies and police would have known there was violence and alcohol abuse in his home.Witnessing his dad’s death is “a real, hard-hitting example” of when more aggressive intervention was needed, says Prince Albert Police Chief Dale McFee. But even before that, domestic violence and Joe’s parents’ alcohol abuse should have raised flags for more than just reactive solutions that address immediate crises rather than preventing future ones.This could have involved police and social workers together, as well as addictions counsellors and potentially a psychologist.”We go to them and … we say, ‘We know you’re having trouble: Here’s how can we help,'” There’s a lot of families that don’t know what to do – they’re so entrenched in it.”

Age 8

Joe’s mother gets out of jail and lives with the kids at a YWCA.

Age 9

Kids move back in with their grandmother because of financial conflict between family members. They move back in with their mother shortly after.

Age 10

Joe’s mother is drinking and breaches parole. The kids move back in with their grandmother.

Age 11

Joe’s brother is accused of sexually assaulting his sister. They all move to foster care.

Age 12

Joe’s mom is released on parole and completes alcoholism treatment. The kids move back in with her.

Intervention point

When Joe and his siblings moved from one guardian to another, family services had a chance to step in and ensure they were in a safe, stable household. In some cases, a relative may get custody of children without social services or children’s aid making sure the new guardian has requisite resources, and that the children are well cared for when they’re there.It’s clear, as Joe and his siblings moved from their mother to their grandmother, back to their mother and then into foster care, that this wasn’t happening.

Age 13

Joe’s brother is charged with sexual assault. His sister refuses to testify, and the charges are dropped.

Age 14

Joe’s teachers notice his increasing anger management issues. He misses school and gets in trouble with police. He’s charged under the Young Offenders act.

Intervention point

Joe’s first brushes with the law could have been an opportunity for police to dig deeper, acting on suspicions he was feeding a drug habit. Instead, his charges were largely for break-and-enters. Police didn’t intervene further or bring in an addictions counsellor.Joe’s behaviour at school also should have been a signal for teachers to step in – either to phone home or to call social services or even police. Educators are often reluctant to intervene in these kinds of situations, but, Chief McFee argues, “schools are often the earliest to know.”

Age 15-16

Joe is charged with multiple break-and-enters and multiple counts of dangerous operation of a motor vehicle. He’s the victim of a robbery. Police suspect his criminal activity is involved with feeding his mother’s drug habit and his own.

Age 16-17

Joe’s charged under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, which replaced the Young Offenders Act in 2003. He’s charged with robbery with firearms, willful damage, shoplifting, bail violations, escape custody. Later, he is also charged with assaulting a police officer. Joe faces jail time.

Intervention point

As Joe’s charges became more serious, it was incumbent on police and parole officers to prevent his crimes from escalating. This is no longer an early intervention. But at this point, it’s clear to police and other agencies that his crimes are escalating and that his situation isn’t improving. This should be seen as a crucial – possibly final – opportunity to pull Joe out of an escalating cycle of crime, Chief McFee argues.”At that point in time, you change the focus from something that’s an early intervention,” he said. “‘You’re in serious trouble. Here’s how we get you back on track.’ … But, looking back, if you’d invested a dollar earlier, would you have avoided having that discussion? The answer is yes.”

Age 18

Joe is accused of stabbing a boy to death with a knife.
He is convicted of second-degree murder.

INTERACTIVE BY STUART A. THOMPSON
SOURCES: TIM SMITH/CANADIAN ASSOCIATION OF CHIEFS OF POLICE; PRINCE ALBERT POLICE SERVICE

A new program aims to stop crime before it happens – and has the results to show for it

Three days, 30 shootings and four people shot to death. That’s the latest in a grim tally of a spate of public violence that has shattered Torontonians’ sense of safety in the most everyday gathering places – a community barbecue; an ice cream parlour; a primary school playground; a popular downtown mall.

Police have made arrests and are continuing their investigations into the shootings. But they admit the existing approach isn’t eliminating gun violence. So they’re trying something new. This fall, Toronto will implement a pilot project aimed at stopping violent crimes before they happen. The idea’s revolutionary in its simplicity: Get existing community agencies working together, track results and use evidence to move forward.

The model comes from Prince Albert, Sask., where the program is turning heads and getting results. Adopted from a successful plan in Glasgow, Scotland, it doesn’t involve more officers making more arrests, cracking down on miscreants or handing out more punitive sentences. Instead, it assesses risk factors and watches for warning signs in individuals, families and communities to prevent people from cycling into a lifetime of crime of victimization.

The three-month pilot, Furthering Communities and Uniting Services, begins in September in Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood with “the full support of Chief [Bill] Blair,” said Deputy Police Chief Peter Sloly. “If it works in the way that other sites have worked, it should actually reduce [policing] costs.”

The program has already started its twice-weekly meetings. It has garnered interest – and funding – from the province, and has applied for a proceeds-of-crime grant from the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services.

“If we know someone is going down a wrong path, why wouldn’t we stop that?” says the project’s lead officer, Sergeant Greg Watts.

In 2007, Prince Albert’s Chief Dale McFee saw a police force in crisis and the telltale signs of a doomed business model.

In most of Canada, the population is aging, the crime rate dropping. This northern Saskatchewan community had it the other way around: In eight years, crime rates more than doubled. The 35,000-person town has the most police calls per capita in the province.

At the time, almost half of Prince Albert’s crimes were perpetrated by people between 15 and 24 years old. Vulnerable kids were bouncing through the justice system, the health system and the social services system – all in costly isolation, and with few positive outcomes.

“You look at it and ask, ‘What’s better? What’s changed?’ ” Chief McFee said. “We’d better start looking at this differently if we’re going to start maximizing our results.”

He cast around for other communities with similar problems, and set on Glasgow. That city’s police force was also dealing with substance abuse, gangs, domestic violence and youth crime. In 2005, police came up with a solution: They got different agencies talking to one another.

Some of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit’s priorities are no-brainers: Prevention is cheaper than enforcement: If you do that well, it frees up resources to stop offenders who need the full brunt of the law. Communicate and co-ordinate with other organizations. Measure what you’re doing to see how it works, and act on that evidence.

Other initiatives aren’t so obvious: Police and social workers set up a program getting dentists to look out for women sporting signs of domestic abuse. A trusted medical professional can catch bruises or chipped teeth and encourage a patient to report it. Failing that, the dentist can document the abuse in case charges are pursued in the future.

“Even the most effective policing system in the world will not reduce violence,” says John Carnochan, detective chief superintendent and co-director of the Violence Reduction Unit. “If we can catch [potential offenders] at the top and stop them from falling, that’s public health.”

It’s also crime prevention, years in advance. “It’s about joining the dots. It’s about thinking a bit more laterally about this,” Det. Carnochan said.

Part of the initiative’s appeal is that this isn’t capital-intensive. It’s about communication, not money.

“It’s core business,” Det. Carnochan said. “We’re not saying, ‘Let’s teach every 17-year-old to play the piano.’ ”

Eighteen months in, Prince Albert’s new strategy is paying dividends: Violent crime is down 28 per cent compared to mid-year 2011, after years of consecutive increases.

“We’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of our troubles,” Chief McFee said. “This is moving from a political argument of ‘tough on crime,’ ‘soft on crime.’ … This is smart on community safety.”

Other police forces are also sitting up and taking notice: Waterloo, Ont., is looking into a program of its own. Toronto’s Deputy Sloly argues that the key difference to the pilot program’s approach is the reliance on evidence-based research.

“Everyone can point to individuals, families, small neighbourhoods, buildings, where … you can see how they go from not so good to really lousy,” he said. “If we invested there, we could have changed the course of action.”

With a report from Jane Switzer

How the strategy works

Prince Albert’s successful crime-prevention program has two components.

The Hub is for short-term casework; the COR (Centre of Responsibility) is for longer-term studies to find patterns in cases in the Saskatchewan city and determine what’s working and what’s not.

The Hub is made up of representatives from police, social work, education and public health. They meet twice weekly and bring in cases they think could use a team approach. This could include, for example, behavioural problems at school that might be linked to abuse at home, or break-and-enter charges used to feed an addiction. From there, the team develops a strategy tailored for each case. That could mean police, case workers and psychologists showing up at a family’s home all at once, inviting a family in for an informal conversation, or a social worker making the intial contact to explain the program.

The Hub has dealt with 423 cases since its inception in February, 2011. Many have to do with child welfare: issues such as housing, addiction, mental health and domestic violence. Between February, 2011, and April, 2012, social services diverted 109 cases to the integrated approach.

The COR has full-time staff seconded from different agencies to focus on more systemic, long-term issues: How do you deal with alcoholism? Is it worthwhile to establish a “wet house” where addicts can get alcohol in a safe environment? Is it worth pursuing legislation that would allow detoxification units to keep youth there against their will?

“The issues are obvious. There hasn’t traditionally been this method of dealing with them before,” says Constable Matt Gray. “It’s pretty satisfying, after 15 years of policing … to help people instead of just bandaging the situation.”

The numbers back them up: After three consecutive years of increases, crime rates dropped between 2010 and 2011 on multiple metrics. The total number of occurrences dipped almost 12 per cent; the number of missing-person calls (largely for youth who have left home or foster care) dropped 52 per cent.

The integrated program has become so popular, says child and family services manager Isla Wilcox, it motivates people to actually ask for help.

“People say … ‘I’m not afraid to call you guys now.’ ”

Prince Albert’s 2012 mid-year crime statistics:

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