Pierrefonds police spearhead youth crime prevention

Revolutionary program for kids 6-12 a first in Quebec

By Robert Frank

Michel Wilson prefers to prevent a crime, rather than deal with the aftermath.

Since arriving at Station 3 in Pierrefonds, three-and-a-half years ago, the Montreal police commander has worked hard to forge community partnerships with health and social services that will help to nip problems in the bud.

His latest initiative is a program to stem youth crime—before it begins—called SNAP.

SNAP, which stands for Stop Now and Plan, targets kids 6-12 who act out. It’s an age when children are still malleable—and SNAP teaches them how to recognize and deal with their impulses, and sets them on the right path, rather than waiting until they become intractable problem-teens. 

Commander Wilson hosted a summit at Station 3, Feb. 12, which brought together city officials, youth workers, social service experts and peace officers to learn from the experience of SNAP project leader Monique Verpoort.

Verpoort, who works for the Toronto-based Child Development Institute, explained how SNAP helps to take youngsters who are at risk, protects them and helps them to become productive adults.

“Snap is being used at 93 sites worldwide,” she said, “as far away as Denmark.”

“It’s a scientifically based program,” she explained, showing participants imagery of how kids who had been involved in SNAP showed improved activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

“One in five Canadians under 19 struggles with a mental health problem such as drugs, alcohol, suicide, dropping out, isolation and withdrawal,” Verpoort observed. “In the general population the rate is about 22 percent. In the juvenile justice system, the rate of mental illness is nearly 60 percent!”

The strategy represents a sea change in the way that police approach crime prevention.

Police initiative welcomed

“There’s not much out there right now for six-year-olds,” acknowledged Commander Wilson, who is the first person to advocate introducing SNAP in Quebec. “We’re better at dealing with adults, but working with youngsters is the best long-term way to curb crime.”

Const. Khobee Gibson added that the program is needed as an alternative to throwing children into the justice system. In some parts of the West Island, schools are the biggest source of calls for peace officer assistance.

“If we get a call from a principal, we have no choice but to go,” Const. Gibson explained.

Following the briefing, Verpoort provided three days of intensive training for workers from the Family Resource Centre and Projet communautaire de Pierrefonds.

Both organizations hope to gain funding to implement SNAP programs on the West Island in coming months.

“The Montreal police service has made this a priority,” affirmed Family Resource Centre executive director Carrie Goldberg. “They came up with the idea, and got the concept approved. Now we’re going to proceed to the next level, to put together a pilot project.”

“We hope to gather together groups of at-risk kids 6-12, and use these methods to work, together with the families, toward preventing these kids from entering the world of crime.”

“The consensus is that the SNAP training session was amazing,” affirmed Projet communautaire de Pierrefonds director Shirley Miller. “We were impressed with the whole program.”

If the SNAP pilot projects prove as successful as their proponents expect, it will gradually be rolled out elsewhere in Montreal and the rest of Quebec.

“In Montreal, we need ears, we need heart,” said Montreal street gangs official Jocelyne Lebrun. “There is a problem in continuity and we need to work together. Prevention starts that way.”

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