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How many Toronto police officers does it take to screw in a sustainable light bulb?

Last summer a series of shootings in the Mount Olive area, near Albion and Finch in North Etobicoke, convinced Desree Prince that she needed to take special precautions, especially for her three kids. They were all teenagers, the youngest 13, and with bullets flying in the neighbourhood, she kept a much closer eye on them.

"Certain times of the night, we'd stay inside for safety purposes," says Prince, 45, who has lived for 14 years in the neighbourhood, known for its extremely diverse ethnic makeup and lower-than-average incomes. "The problems stemmed from people outside the community, but it was happening very close by. We were scared. The police station is quite close but during the violence, it seemed so far away."

This year, the Toronto Police Service's Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) chose Albion and Finch as one of the targets of its annual summer campaign, assigning extra officers to patrol the area to make it harder for criminals to roam the streets. At first, the officers brought with them a much-sought-after sense of security. But partway through the summer, residents started to notice that the police were bringing something else as they went from door to door, community event to community event -- energy-efficient light bulbs.

"We knew they were going to come through the neighbourhood, but we didn't really know what they'd be doing," says Prince, who lives in a Toronto Community Housing townhouse that faces a shared courtyard. "Then they gave us these bulbs, which brighten up the place. I think it's much safer."

It sounds like a joke: How many police officers does it take to put in a light bulb? 72 if you count all the officers on TAVIS duty. But the bulbs were actually the idea of Sgt Scott Boulet the Toronto Police Force's 23 Division, an idea that found an unusual common ground between a police force and a utility company.

While TAVIS officers were patrolling Albion and Finch, Jane and Finch and Scarborough Village areas, Boulet noticed that many homes didn't have their front lights on. They were either shut off or burnt out, casting a veil of darkness over many streets. Boulet contacted Toronto Hydro about getting some energy-efficient bulbs to give out, figuring that the more light there is on the streets, the safer they'll be. According to the TAVIS strategy, once police have driven crime out of problem areas, residents are encouraged to put those areas to legitimate usage so the criminals can't move back in. Better lighting is one of the ways of doing that.

"It also gives us the opportunity to knock on someone's door and have a conversation," says Sgt. Jeffery Pearson, the TAVIS lead on the Light The Night project. "We believe the brighter the neighbourhood is, the less crime there will be."

Toronto Hydro, meanwhile, is currently trying to educate Torontonians about its new time-of-use (TOU) billing, which makes it cheaper to use electricity overnight and on the weekends than during the day. Police found that many residents were hesitant about leaving their porch lights on overnight because of the cost. But a low-energy bulb, lit during the off-peak hours between 9pm and 7am, costs only about one cent a night. Boulet's request presented the utility with an opportunity to get its message out.

Gillian Earle, marketing and communications consultant at Toronto Hydro, says the company has particularly been trying to reach out to low-income consumers. They're the ones who feel the biggest pinch from the daytime spike in electricity pricing and the ones who might not be as likely to find out about TOU billing online. Not surprisingly, there's a correlation between high crime and low income, so the TAVIS-targeted neighbourhoods were a good fit. Toronto Hydro dedicated 5,000 compact fluorescent bulbs to be given out to the neighbourhoods, half of which had been distributed by mid-September. Officers and hydro reps actually put the light bulbs in the sockets for residents, so they don't end up sitting on a counter somewhere, unused.

"It's a good opportunity to reach residents we may not reach through other channels. Face-to-face seems to be the best way," says Earle. "A lot of the residents are new immigrants, so language can be a problem. The light bulb itself serves as a good symbol for conservation."

Fairus Ali, who has lived in the Mount Olive area for seven years, used to worry about leaving the porch light on overnight. "Even to the kids, we said, 'Don't leave the light on because of the bill,'" she says. She was pleased to find out her new bulbs consume so little energy. Since she's been leaving the outside light on all night, Ali has felt safer.

"There had been bigger boys sitting near the house, smoking and the like," says Ali, who has four children, aged between three and fourteen. "When the light is on, they don't come around."

Prince had been aware of the TOU billing and had always left her low-energy porch light on overnight. But the light bulb campaign has helped her efforts to get her neighbours to join her. The courtyard is brighter now and she's not so nervous when her kids go out.

"I think it's working," says Prince, "and the youth don't feel so much like the police are out to get them because they're doing something positive."

Paul Gallant is a Toronto-based freelance writer who lives in the emerging Brockton Triangle neighbourhood.

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