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New ways to fight the war on crime

October 26, 2004

New ways to fight the war on crime
By Tessa MacKinnon
October 26, 2004, Hyatt Regency Vancouver

"The changes are coming," said chief constable Jamie Graham of the Vancouver Police Department at today’s Policy ForumTM on crime in Vancouver.

The event was sponsored by InterGlobe Security Corp. & Investigation Services Inc.

Members of today’s panel were in agreement — there are many changes afoot in the city that are making a difference in both the incidence of crime and approaches to dealing with it.

Dave Park, chief economist and assistant managing director for The Vancouver Board of Trade, set the stage for the forum as he described recent reports on crime and gave an update on the situation.

A year ago, The Board’s report on crime showed that in 2002, Greater Vancouver was proportionately the worst major metropolitan area for property crime in Canada.

Park listed the key causes for property crime in Vancouver as the following: drug addiction, insufficient policing, weak sentencing and inadequate treatment facilities.

The cost of property crime is staggering, estimated to have cost $121 million in 2003, with residents carrying most of the burden at a cost of $98 million. Approximately $60 million of these losses involve vehicles.

The downtown peninsula has been particularly hard-hit, especially with auto theft, but the area has seen a decrease in 2003 over the 2002 numbers. "This may well be due to the work of a special squad formed by the Vancouver Police Department," said Park.

However, Park points out that Vancouver has fewer police than it should have for its relative population, and the higher crime rate further increases the need for more police. Park believes the police department should be provided with greater resources earmarked in part to help fight property crime.

The use of and trafficking of illegal drugs drives most crime acts in Vancouver. Park hopes a drug court pilot currently underway will be successful; he also believes there are "too few resources being applied to the prevention of drug addiction."

Areas of progress in the past year include the significant impact of a special police squad in downtown Vancouver, as well as the success of Operation Cooperation. The city-wide enforcement team has improved the livability of the Downtown Eastside, although partly at the expense of displacing crime to other areas. The Safe Streets Act and amendments to the Trespass Act have been also been introduced, with the former on the verge of getting passed.

"Police, courts and politicians must demonstrate determination to overcome the property crime problem in Vancouver," said Park. "There is far too much at stake to allow the situation to continue."

Graham cautioned the audience not to be misled by media coverage that the Safe Streets Act is an attack on the poor. "There is no organization that has done more in terms of helping people that are really in need than the Vancouver Police, and to think that we would implement or support the implementation of a program that would aggravate that situation, you’re just dreaming," Graham said.

He described the success of the police force’s implementation of "Project Lucille," targeting Vancouver hotels with rampant drug dealing and trafficking. The project’s intent was to gather evidence for a civil standard to pull the hotels’ business licenses, rather than going through the troublesome mechanics of the court system. "That’s going to be an ongoing way to do business in Vancouver," Graham said.

Liquor licenses are another big issue, as there is no means in place to collect liquor fines, a quirk of legislation that apparently will be changed soon. Police also believe the fine for open liquor in a motor vehicle should be a $500, rather than $57, another change purportedly being introduced in B.C. this fall.

Said Graham, "If I was a judge, I would change some laws — I think we should implement minimum jail time for breaking and entering into a home, and have an automatic charge for failing to appear for a court date."

Graham strongly believes that encouraging and supporting literacy helps reduce crime by keeping people in school and off the streets: "The best and most successful societies in the world right now are the ones that push literacy and education."

Lorne Mayencourt, MLA for Vancouver-Burrard, discussed issues of public safety and public order such as the Safe Streets initiative, which Mayencourt acknowledged is a collective effort of many people who believe we need civil order in communities and consequences for bad behaviour.

But Mayencourt says the process is only just beginning — the law is only some words on paper and will require the resources and support of the community to come alive.

The province has recently delivered $7.8 million to Vancouver for public safety issues to be spent on more police support, and Mayencourt says the city must be held accountable on that. Mayencourt’s own neighbourhood, downtown Vancouver’s West End, had 45,000 residents in 1986 with 120 police officers, while today there are 80,000 residents with only 118 police officers.

Last week, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell called together seven mayors from across the province to discuss the underlying issues of crime, such as poverty, mental health and addiction. Mayencourt finds this extremely encouraging.

The working group the premier has put together will not just study homelessness, but look at ways to build affordable and sustainable housing in B.C. One way of aiding this effort is to install a tenant support worker in single row occupancy (SRO) buildings to manage and mediate for the people; four buildings in the Downtown Eastside already have one of these workers in them.

Mayencourt said he is dedicated to healing the Downtown Eastside so it becomes a wonderful place to live. "This job has introduced me to thousands of British Columbians who are committed to social responsibility... to helping those that are less fortunate... to having a civil society, and it’s a great privilege to work with them toward solutions."

Elisabeth Burgess is chair of the Street Crime Working Group, which is comprised of three provincial court judges, a Vancouver Police representative, adult and youth probation representatives, federal and provincial prosecutors, a Vancouver Agreement representative, and the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.

The group’s focus is street crime, visible crime that affects "the most people most often." The geographical boundary is west of Clark Drive, encompassing Chinatown, the West End, Yaletown, Gastown and the downtown peninsula. The mandate is to find more effective ways to deal with targeted groups of people: chronic re-offenders, drug-addicted offenders and mentally disordered offenders.

While in some cases this may mean longer jail sentences, it may also mean new methods and recommendations for treatment and rehabilitation, said Burgess. And in other cases, in partnership with the treatment community, the group may be able to create alternatives that will actually help reduce crime.

The themes that have emerged from working with various groups for input to the draft recommendations include: how to deal with public concern about "disorder" rather than crime; how to deal with the small number of repeat offenders; and how to determine which offenders are good candidates for treatment and which ones need to be in jail.

"We also know that the underlying causes of crime are going to need to be addressed: homelessness, drug addiction, unemployment, mental health issues," added Burgess.

She notes that Vancouver’s business community has been proactive, supportive of police and has led the way in the fight on crime: "You have expertise that we need; we would like to partner with you in various ways... we would really benefit from advice that you may have to help with initiatives we want to take."

Burgess made a commitment to return with the Street Crime Working Group’s draft recommendations. "I think we’re on the verge of some new partnerships that will give us the ability to tackle some of these problems in a way we never have before."

View Park’s presentation (PDF/2,142kb)

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