Downtown needs real ambassadors, not a private security team

The downtown is safe, so let’s communicate that, rather than offer protection from a threat that doesn’t exist.

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Controversy erupted earlier this month when the Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA) announced a new initiative to address perceptions that the downtown is unsafe and uncomfortable. The initiative is a four- to six-week pilot project, and will see privately contracted security guards called “Ambassadors” patroling the streets. They’re meant to provide support and a friendly presence to people using the downtown, but also act as “eyes and ears,” monitoring any dangerous, illegal, or violent activity.

This security function has some people worried, and voicing concerns about a private (and thus, unaccountable) company providing security services in public space.

The DBIA and Kawartha Guard Service (the company hired to provide the security) are assuring critics that the ambassadors will only use a “soft glove” approach to dealing with what they call “anti-social” behaviour, though on private property (i.e., in stores), they will be able to remove people at the owner’s request. Despite the assurance of a gentle and polite approach, it’s not clear how the public will be able to hold the ambassadors to account. Those assurances also don’t address the implicit intimidation that the ambassadors could cause simply by being present.

The downtown, it should be noted, does have an image problem among some segments of the Peterborough community. There is a perception that the area is undesirable, even unsafe, because of the presence of panhandlers, people with visible mental illnesses, and people in conflict with each other. Some people with these perceptions are simply intolerant, but many just feel unsafe in the unpredictable situations that can sometimes arise downtown.

For example, seniors have identified safety as one of the reasons they avoid the downtown, according to the coordinator of Peterborough County’s Age-Friendly Plan, Sarah Cullingham.

“We did hear from some seniors about feeling unsafe, scared, or uncomfortable in the downtown area,” Cullingham said. “But it’s important to keep in mind those concerns were expressed as perceptions.” Cullingham also stressed that seniors were just as concerned about physical accessibility and general cleanliness as they were about safety.

Given the downtown’s image problem, the DBIA isn’t totally misguided to consider something like an ambassador program.

The presence of someone to animate the downtown, to help to build better relationships between shoppers and the marginalized, and to help challenge the stereotypes that generate perceptions of danger in the first place could be a very positive thing. But this person should be an experienced community-builder with a history working with vulnerable populations, and should be chosen with community input. Privately hiring a security team might appease and pacify people’s prejudices about the marginalized, but it won’t challenge them.

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DBIA Executive Director Terry Guiel has been responding to criticisms of the program by emphasizing the ambassadors’ less controversial functions.

“They will have an ambassador role, not a security role,” Guiel told Electric City Magazine.

When pressed why the DBIA chose professional security guards for a non-security role, he said it was because “they’re trained in conflict resolution, they have first aid, they have their Smart Serve.… They have an ability to de-escalate issues.” All good training to have, but certainly not anything exclusive to the security profession.

In the first week the ambassadors were deployed, they responded to an incident in which a shoplifter threatened a George Street business owner with scissors. The ambassadors were across the street at the time, and they followed the shoplifter when she fled the store. A few minutes later, the police arrested the shoplifter.

The owner of Kawartha Guard Service, David Lavallee, imagined a more gruesome ending to this incident: “Now change that around, but while she [the shoplifter] is heading [north] she grabs a kid on a bike, stabs him in the neck, grabs the bike and takes off. The kid’s lying there, whether he’s dead in a pool of blood, or paralyzed, who knows,” Lavallee said to emphasize the need for intervention from security in some situations.

That Lavallee would engage in exactly the kind of speculative fear-mongering that downtown ambassadors, or any similar initiative, should be discouraging suggests that the Kawartha Guard Service is not equipped for this role.

Further comments made by Lavallee suggest that the guards chosen to be ambassadors have had little training for their new position beyond what would have been required of them to become security guards and private investigators. Lavallee did say KGS employees are “taking mental health training as we go along,” but he also seemed to dismiss that training as unnecessary and ineffective.

“What training do you need other than being nice to people?” Lavallee asked. “We know the downtown. We know the stores. What are you going to go for, the mental health training? It doesn’t work.… I’m just being truthful. You need kind-hearted people. We’re killing them with kindness.”

Let’s start by acknowledging that people are scared of the downtown, and not blame them for it. There are all sorts of ways we are socialized to distrust and fear the poor. Then, let’s design a program that communicates that the marginalized aren’t a threat, but rather members of a vibrant community that can include everyone.


Read Will Pearson’s longer discussion of panhandling in downtown Peterborough: “Panhandled.”


Photo by B Mroz.

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Will Pearson

Will Pearson

Will Pearson is a freelance journalist based in Peterborough, Ontario. He has written for a variety of local and national publications, and he is the host of the Peterborough Currents podcast.