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The Globe and Mail

Overkill or common sense: CCTV cameras in a party district

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic issues.

In Vancouver, where civil liberties are guarded as zealously as old-growth forests, advocating for closed-circuit television cameras is tantamount to shilling for a chainsaw company.

So it is understandable that Vision Vancouver councillors did not immediately embrace a proposal to install cameras along the Granville Street entertainment corridor, where the street scene at closing time can get nasty.

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Much is already being done to keep the peace. Police are out in force with late-night foot patrols. Clubs along the strip comply with Barwatch regulations requiring them to check identification and ban known gangsters and violent criminals. They have zero tolerance for violence and harassment and are mandated by Barwatch to install CCTV cameras to catch incidents like drink-spiking.

And still violence continues in the Granville Entertainment District: 289 fights, 141 assaults and 22 sexual assaults recorded last year alone. Then on a Saturday night in January, the unthinkable. Kalwinder (Kris) Thind, a Vancouver event promoter, was fatally stabbed as he tried to break up a fight outside Cabana Lounge. The attack was filmed by bystanders and police put out a public request for all footage. Arrests were made, but no one has yet been charged.

Mr. Thind's death prompted Non-Partisan Association councillor George Affleck to renew his call for a Granville Street redesign to civilize closing time on the strip. Among his recommendations are outdoor entertainment and late-night patios to attract a greater mix of people to the area and put more eyes on the street. He also suggested staggering closing hours to avoid the crush of people leaving at once, running transit later to provide everyone an affordable way to get home and installing CCTV cameras as a deterrent to violence.

Dozens of studies about the efficacy of CCTV as a crime deterrent have been done in the United States and Britain, where cities have embraced camera programs. The evidence is mixed and largely weak. Even Curtis Robinson, a former Vancouver police officer who drafted the current Barwatch program in 2007 and supports city-operated cameras in the club zone, admits, "As a deterrent, I'm not entirely convinced."

Where cameras do work is after a crime has been committed. CCTV footage helped catch the 2017 London subway bomber, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers and, closer to home, looters during the 2011 Stanley Cup riots. Privately filmed video helps police prosecute innumerable crimes and conversely helps the public hold police to account.

Vancouver is not Europe or the United States and thankfully does not face the same threats from terrorism. And given that privacy rights are sacrificed with every camera installed, a widespread CCTV surveillance program here would be overkill. But it may be time for a few well-placed cameras along a known problem strip.

Video is already part of daily life. "You have [a video camera] in your pocket," Mr. Affleck points out. Without city-controlled cameras, police are forced to beg footage from bystanders and private businesses, many of which have CCTV to protect staff and property. As a society we acknowledge the need for police to obtain video from private citizens and willingly accept that evidence in court. So, does it still make sense for the city to stake out a moral high ground by simply failing to participate in capturing images upon which we have all come to rely?

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TransLink has 1,500 cameras gathering footage in SkyTrain stations for use as evidence when crimes are committed. The city positions cameras in public facilities such as libraries, community centres and even City Hall. Vancouver Police routinely film special events such as fireworks as a deterrence measure.

"How is that different than Granville Street at 2 a.m.?" Mr. Affleck wonders. Mr. Affleck's proposal was sent back to city staff to consult with community groups to gauge the appetite for CCTV on the strip. Hopefully they come back with a yes.

It's also time for TransLink to extend service hours for transit out of downtown on weekend nights. Whisking drunks home to bed is arguably the best deterrence to violence, which often breaks out as people mill about searching for ways to get home. These measures won't solve all of Granville Street's problems, but it is worth trying what we can to cool the temperature on the strip.

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