Not all crimes are created equal. There are murders that barely rate a mention in the media. Then there are others that so rattle our communities they have a profound and lingering effect that can often lead to change.
Julie Paskall’s death is one of those. Ms. Paskall is the 53-year-old Surrey woman who died this week after being beaten days earlier while waiting for her 16-year-old son to finish refereeing a hockey game. The crime occurred in the parking lot outside a hockey rink, a mother waiting for her boy to take his skates off. It doesn’t get much more Canadian than that.
And perhaps because of that, it is the death of a woman identified nationally as a hockey mom that has shaken us all this holiday season and again thrust the city where she lived into a disquieting light. It is one that in recent years Surrey has largely avoided, while forging a fresh image as a modern metropolis with designs on a dynamic future.
Now Ms. Paskall’s murder will revive old caricatures, giving those who don’t have time for statistics an opportunity to trot out the distasteful jokes that stigmatized the city for decades. For Surrey’s fine mayor, Dianne Watts, and an RCMP force that has worked hard in recent years to attack crime numbers that fuelled the city’s often tawdry image, it doesn’t seem quite fair.
Yes, in some respects this has not been a great year for Surrey. There were a record number of murders – 25. And there have been increases in crimes such as abductions and sexual assaults. But robberies are down and the overall violent crime rate in the first three quarters of 2013 also fell by 10 per cent over 2012. But murders can get the public’s attention, and when they involve innocent victims such as Julie Paskall, they can ignite a community rage that can’t be ignored.
On that front, the people who live in the hardscrabble neighbourhoods of Whalley and Newton, where Ms. Paskall was killed, are justified in their anger. Their streets have felt unsafe for too long. Many store owners have given up hope that the city and police will deal with the dead-eyed addicts who haunt their shops and scare away business.
A decade ago, I was a hockey dad shepherding a young son to arenas in these two areas; it was never fun. The rinks never seemed to be particularly secure, the washrooms never a spot you’d allow your young child to enter alone. Coaches who frequented the rink in Newton where Ms. Paskall was murdered – and where I attended games many times – complained for years about the shadowy characters who often milled around the premises.
I never understood how drug dealing could persist almost daily in a certain area without the police doing anything about it. And yet it happens. And continues to happen in areas such as Newton and Whalley. But that’s only part of the story.
The city’s Crime Reduction Strategy, introduced in 2006, has had a significant impact on criminal behaviour. According to national statistics compiled by Maclean’s magazine, crime in Surrey is down 21.2 per cent in the time since the program began and 2012 – a period, it should also be noted, in which the city’s population grew by tens of thousands of people. In terms of the most crime-ridden cities in the country, according to Maclean’s last survey, Surrey ranks 10th, behind three others in B.C. alone – including Victoria, which hardly has the dubious image that a community statistically purported to be the second-most “dangerous” in the country would usually have.
Ms. Watts is justifiably frustrated with the step back Surrey has taken this year in certain crime categories. It seems to be cyclical, she insists, an uptick in crime that happens every four years or so. She’d like to know why. In November, she created a task force of police, district educators and criminologists to look for answers.
The reality, of course, is that there is often little anyone can do to prevent murder. If a gangster wants to kill a rival, he’ll do it. All the task forces in the world won’t stop it.
The death of Julie Paskall, however, might fall into a different category. For years, people were sounding the alarm about the miscreants hanging around the Newton arena and yet nothing was done about it. A dangerous situation was allowed to persist and, on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be any good excuse for it.
I don’t care where the city is, a mother should be able to wait for her son outside a hockey rink without fear of being killed. The fact that one can’t is a crime.
Follow Gary Mason on Twitter @garymasonglobe