Dan Fumano: Adding more cops won’t stop street crime, Vancouver council hears

Opinion: Public safety is likely to be a major issue in Vancouver’s election this year.

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After council called a meeting on the subject of public safety and crime, it quickly became clear that one night would not be nearly enough to hear from everyone who wanted to speak.

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The topic touched a nerve, with more than 70 members of the public and representatives of organizations signed up to speak. Over four hours on Thursday night, council heard from several city departments — including police, parks, community services, and sanitation — and then a series of non-profits and business associations, with stories of random assaults, broken windows, and an escalating sense of street disorder.

When the meeting finished around 10 pm, council had not yet begun to hear from citizens, and the meeting will resume next month.

The meeting was called in response to a motion introduced at a council meeting last month by Non-Partisan Association Coun. Melissa De Genova, responding to an “alarming” increase in violent crime. De Genova’s March motion went through various amendments from other councillors, then was approved unanimously.

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It seems likely that crime will be a bigger issue in this year’s Vancouver election than it has been in recent memory. De Genova, as much as any candidate, seems especially eager to draw attention to the issue.

De Genova recuses herself from council votes involving the police department because she is married to a VPD officer, but she regularly introduces motions on law and order. In recent months, she has been a frequent commentator on public safety matters, in council meetings, media interviews and on social media.

Earlier this week, De Genova introduced at motion to direct staff to talk to the VPD to explore installing CCTV cameras in public places to deter and solve crime. It failed after no other council member voted to support it.

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Public safety has become a hot-button issue in several North American cities during the pandemic. Just this week, news sources reported violence and citizen unrest soaring in philadelphiaa The Angels quality-of-life survey reported its lowest level ever, Calgary was on pace for almost a 100 per cent year-over-year increase in homicides, and toronto recorded a dramatic jump in hate crimes.

Thursday evening, Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer told council that, in 2021, violent crime was up 7.1 per cent over pre-pandemic levels, reports of anti-Asian hate crimes soared by more than 500 per cent, and an average of four unprovoked strangers assaults a day were reported to police.

While some crime statistics have been trending down, the numbers don’t paint the full picture, Palmer said. “The general feeling of being unsafe, as compared with the crime stats, is also a real thing in our city.”

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Most crime categories are also significantly under-reported, Palmer said, and recent stats shine a light on just how many people attempt but are unable to contact police, abandoning their calls.

“The reason they’re not reporting crime is because, looking at the calls for service last year to the Vancouver Police Department — hang on to your socks — but last year, 88,074 calls were unanswered by E-Comm (BC’s emergency phone dispatcher) on the non-emergency line,” Palmer said.

That’s an average of 241 times a day that “citizens are calling the police and nobody’s answering,” Palmer said. “If you want to see the crime rate go to zero, then we just don’t answer the phone at all. But these calls have to be answered.”

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Palmer cited media reports earlier this week about a pair of men in Chinatown apparently trying to use a hacksaw to steal a decorative gold-colored dragon from a lamppost, calling the daylight robbery attempt “disgraceful.”

Many of the stories council heard Thursday focused on Chinatown, a historic neighborhood that has grappled in recent years with complaints of increased crime and disorder.

Michael Tan, co-chair of the council-appointed Vancouver Chinatown legacy stewardship group, told council that many community members hoped the situation would improve after the VPD opened a Chinatown community policing office last year. However, he said, “an increase of police on the ground and the implementation of CCTV cameras in Chinatown has been ineffective as a deterrent against vandalism.”

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Tan also talked about the metal dragon thieves, and added: “The context is that dragon is actually located on Pender Street, about 50 meters down from that community policing center. So an increased police presence in the neighborhood has not been a deterrent.”

Tan said Friday that his group includes Chinese seniors who are longtime Chinatown residents, some of whom say they fear for their personal safety when they go grocery shopping.

“I don’t want to shy away from it. … There is that feeling of the erosion of the perception of safety,” Tan said. But the solution, he said, is not as simple as adding more police officers.

Tan pointed out that Palmer, in his comments Thursday night, also emphasized the importance of strengthening the social safety net, and called for more help for those struggling with acute mental illness. So applauded Palmer for publicly supporting those causes.

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So remains optimistic that things will improve in Chinatown and across Vancouver, he said. “But we need to be addressing the causes and not just the symptoms.”

The special council meeting will resume May 10. After its completion, city staff will work with police to create a plan by June.

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