With the discovery of another body this week, Surrey recorded its 22nd homicide of the year – an all-time high that spurred Mayor Dianne Watts to immediately assemble a task force to address the problem.
But while police officials and criminologists caution against a single year’s statistic, the grim record – more than four times that of Vancouver’s five homicides – has dealt another blow to a burgeoning city that has long struggled to shake a stubborn reputation for violence and criminal activity.
This, despite the fact some of the city’s other crime rates – property and motor vehicle crimes, for example – have dropped dramatically in the past decade.
Ms. Watts announced the formation of the task force on Tuesday, just one day after police located the body of the still-unidentified male at a residence. She responded with similar urgency earlier this year, after four bodies were found within six weeks along a remote stretch of Colebrook Road. Calling it a “problem area” and a “magnet for people who want to conduct criminal activity,” the mayor saw to it that $80,000 worth of lights and closed-circuit cameras were installed.
While the mayor addresses the realities on the ground, others worry about crime’s effect on the city’s image. Lindsay Meredith, a professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University, points to the severity of the crime and the headline-grabbing nature of homicide. “You have the drama of crime, and let’s face it: Homicide has a hell of a lot more cachet than shoplifting,” he said. “You know that’s what’s going to get picked up on the six o’clock [news].”
Around the same time the bodies were found on Colebrook Road, a T-shirt retailer made headlines when it mocked the city by pairing its logo with slogans such as “Better safe than Surrey” and “The future dies here” on T-shirts and hoodies.
But while Surrey may still be trying to shake the lingering stigma, Mr. Meredith notes real estate figures tell a different story. “That whole Central City operation, those highrises are full,” he said. “They’re not ghost towns. That whole area is booming. That’s a good sign that developers see potential there, but much more importantly, that consumers see safe neighbourhoods that they’re prepared to live in.” Indeed, Surrey’s population is projected to increase by more than 300,000 people in the next 30 years.
Abbotsford, which was deemed the “murder capital of Canada” during the height of a gang war in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley in 2008 and 2009, has since shed that title, logging no murders in 2011, three in 2012 and two to date this year. But while Constable Ian MacDonald, spokesman for the Abbotsford police, says they would love to take full credit for the turnaround – through measures such as creating a 14-person gang suppression unit and a highly publicized anti-gang campaign – he acknowledges such patterns can be highly unpredictable.
“People who are involved in gang and drugs move around and go wherever the money is,” he said. “It’s very unpredictable and always in a state of flux. It’s always dangerous to finger-wag in one direction and give praise in another because these things can shift so quickly.”