Event planners from across the continent are eyeing Vancouver as a possible destination for future gatherings now that pandemic restrictions on group meetings have been lifted, but they are worried about reports of crime.
What they want to know is “Are people safe?” says Royce Chwin, head of Destination Vancouver, the city agency that promotes tourism and conventions.
Nolan Marshall, director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, says up to 80 per cent of the calls he gets from media these days concern the perception of crime and public disorder in the city.
“There’s a level of discomfort downtown right now,” he said.
Both men reassure callers that Vancouver is doing relatively well and that statistics, which show overall that there is less crime in the city than before the pandemic, paint a different picture from the videos and personal accounts of street attacks, smashed windows, garbage and chaos that have been hitting mass media and social media in recent months.
However, they also acknowledge that it’s feelings and individual stories, not statistics, that have a much more powerful impact on the public’s impressions of the city.
“It’s the perception. That’s what will turn away business,” said Mr. Chwin.
That’s a perception that many cities in Canada and the U.S. are grappling with, as they deal with individual anecdotes, media reports and some political campaigns saying that crime and unrest are rampant in their downtowns.
Edmonton is currently trying to come up with a community-safety plan because of concerns about homeless people turning to living and sleeping on transit as a new kind of shelter, as well as a sense of general social breakdown. The plan, which envisions spending $8.4-million on 10 different initiatives, includes everything from a new regulatory college for police to an Indigenous-led shelter and more money for drug-poisoning responses.
At a public council meeting on Monday, people were vocal about their apprehension.
“I worry for this city. Never in my 40 years have I seen downtown Edmonton in such dire straits,” said Pamela Brown, a security manager at the Edmonton City Centre Mall.
In Calgary, homicides at this point in the year are more than double what they were for the same period last year and include the shooting death of a 23-year-old mother in March. A 2019 study on public perception of Calgary’s city centre noted that people were already thinking then that the downtown felt less safe. That feeling has intensified, by many accounts.
Cities as different as Victoria and Chicago are dealing with reports of teenage gangs wreaking havoc, to the point that Chicago recently imposed a curfew for young people. A spate of gun violence is currently dominating Toronto news.
In Vancouver, Mr. Marshall and Mr. Chwin say the city is doing better than many, especially U.S. cities where guns are always a factor. But its future success will depend on showing how fast it can turn the tide of people’s perceptions, compared to other cities.
“If we can address it quickly, we can really centre our downtown as the downtown of the future,” Mr. Marshall said.
But he and others are concerned that no level of government is acting fast enough to address both perceptions of crime and a shift in patterns of crime – leading to a palpable sense of disarray and neglect.
Earlier this month, B.C. Attorney General David Eby ordered a study into chronic offenders, after a coalition of urban mayors urged him to do something about the fact that a relatively small group is responsible for thousands of repeat crimes. But that study is going to take four months, an interval that Mr. Marshall called “underwhelming.”
Vancouver has an initiative of almost $500,000 that is supposed to help tackle crime and disorder issues in three central-city neighbourhoods. It hasn’t launched yet, although it was approved in March.
And a recent two-day session at Vancouver City Council to hear people’s opinions on crime and public safety resulted in staff being asked to go off and work with police on additional new measures that could be taken.
Part of the challenge is that there are a lot of very different issues that are sparking people’s concerns. Some are about crime and violence. Others are just about a sense that the city – and some of its residents – are falling apart.
At the council session, one Vancouver man, who works from a home office near Robson Street, called in to complain about someone who comes out onto the street and screams for long periods of time – behaviour that is unsettling but not criminal.
Some talked about personal assaults and vandalism, while others talked about the impact of the sense of general decline in particular neighbourhoods.
“We have businesses in our neighbourhood who are considering leaving Vancouver because they don’t feel safe, they don’t feel welcome,” said Wally Wargolet, executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Association.
As has happened elsewhere, some speakers challenged the idea that more policing is the answer and questioned why some groups’ concerns are dominating the conversation.
“It’s very distasteful that the city has prioritized the comments of police and business groups over people suffering,” said Kit Rothschild, the community co-executive director at Pace Society, a group that supports sex workers in Vancouver. She said that while everyone talks about danger from crime, there seems to be little urgency in doing things, such as providing better lighting on dark streets.
That back and forth is happening in almost every city tackling altered crime and disorder patterns as people argue for different solutions: more police; a different policing strategy; more community services; more treatment – possibly mandatory – for those whose challenges with mental health or addiction seem to be beyond the reach of standard approaches.
In Vancouver, police say they have been shifting their tactics as they deal with what appear to be pandemic-related shifts in crime patterns, which have resulted in more vandalism, more assaults and confrontations in public places, and, in some areas, more violence. As other police forces have done, they’ve shifted some of their resources to “hot spots” and to more visible patrols.
They’ve also been counselling businesses to up their security measures, which many of them have done.
“And we have projects behind the scenes for repeat, chronic property offenders,” said Vancouver police spokeswoman Constable Tania Visintin.
In Edmonton, some speakers at council this week asked for more policing. Others questioned whether that’s the right approach.
“The core of these concerns is a need to focus on public safety rather than narrowly on policing,” said Temitope Oriola, a University of Alberta criminology specialist who studies policing and use of force by law enforcement. “Policing is a subset of public safety but it is not the only part.”
Prof. Oriola said he doesn’t dispute people’s perceptions that crime has shifted.
“They speak to broader concerns and they can’t be summarily dismissed. But they need to be thoughtfully investigated. We cannot police our way out of these social issues.”
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