Violence on public transit and in city spaces across Canada has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic, Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld said in relation to a spate of assaults in his city as well as Edmonton, Metro Vancouver and Toronto.
Neufeld said he’s talked to his counterparts in other cities and it’s hard to know what’s driving the violence, but calls related to mental health have been on the rise.
“There has been a post-pandemic impact that I don’t know that we fully understand,” he told a news conference on Thursday.
“But it’s manifesting itself in public spaces across the country and I think we’ve gone as far down this dark road as we are prepared to go.”
Neufeld said everyone hoped things would return to normal post-pandemic, and governments have been making investments in mental health supports.
“I just don’t think it’s taken effect just yet. I think there’s a lot of promise with respect to a lot of the policies,” he said. “But what we’ve seen is an entrenchment of violence and individuals who are resistant to the services right now.”
Neufeld said Calgary remains a safe city and statistically, there has not been a large increase in violent crime. In fact, he said, there have been fewer shootings this year than the same time last year.
His comments come after a series of violent incidents in cities in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta, including Calgary, where someone was stabbed on a bus Thursday and a shooting on a bus left a man injured on Wednesday.
In Edmonton, police said a 48-year-old man was sitting by himself at a bus stop on Thursday when someone approached from behind and stabbed him in the back.
The Alberta government announced last week that 100 additional street-level police officers would be hired over the next 18 months, with most of them deployed in Edmonton and Calgary in response to the rising violence.
In B.C., a 17-year-old boy was stabbed to death on a bus in Surrey on Tuesday.
A director with the union representing Metro Vancouver transit operators said their members have seen an increase in violence in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Gavin McGarrigle, the western regional director for Unifor, said in an interview there’s a sense of “lawlessness” aboard buses that will require a “culture shift” to fix.
That shift would require a more visible, consistent presence of transit police and security personnel on board buses, not just at hubs, he said Thursday.
McGarrigle said it was “infuriating” to hear Metro Vancouver Transit Police saying this week they cover 1,800 kilometres square, so enforcement must be targeted.
The region’s public transit system is “the backbone of our economy and saying you don’t have enough resources to make sure the passengers and the workers feel safe is like saying you’re putting buses on the road with no tires,” he said.
The lack of security has created a sense that buses are “almost like a lawless environment,” McGarrigle said.
Metro Vancouver Transit Police say officers are deployed throughout the system based on intelligence reports and crime statistics.
Premier David Eby said Thursday that police have stepped up their patrols on buses and trains after the 17-year-old was killed this week.
The teenager’s death is every parent’s nightmare, he said.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth is reaching out to transit authorities and police to see if more resources are needed to ensure safety, Eby said.
The teen’s death was “horrific,” said McGarrigle, who’s concerned that any increased security presence, specifically aboard buses, will fade away again.
“Our members are traumatized, the passengers are affected, and this overall feeling of an unsafe system is really counter to what all levels of government have been trying to do in Vancouver in building that world-class system,” McGarrigle said.
With transit ridership recovering from the pandemic and expanded bus service planned for the region, he said the union wants safety concerns addressed head on.
The death was the second serious stabbing in two weeks aboard a bus in Surrey. The first victim, whose throat was slashed on April 1, is now recovering at home.
The suspect in the attack on the teenager has not yet been arrested and Eby encouraged anyone with information or dashcam footage to come forward.
“This is a profoundly concerning incident,” Eby said.
“It is absolutely vital that people be able to get to work, school and to do fun things around the community on transit and not have concerns about their safety when doing so. That’s a goal that we have and that’s something that all British Columbians deserve.”