BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Walking the beat

If policing cuts do occur, it will be interesting to see who is right about public safety

It’s easy to forget what it used to be like in downtown Vernon.

Back in 2008, there were widespread concerns about criminal activity and drugs.

“We are exposing people and families to huge risks,” said Mary-Jo O’Keefe, then president of the Downtown Vernon Association.

“A child could pick up a needle and that’s a scary thing.”

Some merchants had found condoms on sidewalks or in alleys.

“It does impact our business when that’s the day-to-day reality,” said O’Keefe.

A few years earlier — in 2005 — Cenotaph Park was ground zero for problems. Drug use was open and transients were sleeping there. Conditions ultimately escalated to the point that the DVA hired private security to supplement the police and bylaw enforcement.

All of this came to mind as the current city council proposes to reduce the RCMP detachment by two officers.

It was also on the mind of Supt. Reg Burgess, officer in charge of the local police.

“I have grave concerns that we will lose all ground on the considerable improvements to public safety that we have achieved these past few years,” said Burgess in a letter to council.

“Crime on the streets of Vernon was significantly higher three to four years ago than it is today. We have been able to maintain suppression of visible crime and associated fear of crime through the use of high visibility tactics such as our downtown enforcement unit, enhanced foot patrols and random undercover operations.”

Rolling back staff, Burgess suggests, will leave the RCMP challenged to address crime.

“To reduce policing capacity as a strategy to address normal cost increases such as wages, fuel, mandated equipment or training, and even extraordinary costs is not sustainable and I suggest not a sensible nor a responsible option for addressing the core legislated business of any municipality which includes public safety,” he said.

City officials insist the RCMP are being treated like every other department, and while Burgess requested a 6.7 per cent budget increase, the line is being held at 1.8 per cent.

“We have to apply some fiscal discipline,” said Mayor Rob Sawatzky.

Sawatzky doesn’t appear concerned that removing two officers will lead to chaos in the streets.

“We all want to reduce crime but most of the evidence doesn’t correlate a greater number of officers with a reduction in crime,” he said.

And Sawatzky certainly has a point as proactive measures, including establishing a homeless shelter and co-ordination among various agencies, have helped address some of the social issues that can ultimately translate into crime.

However, Sawatzky must remember that despite all of the hard work by the city and community workers, they are limited in what they can do. Broader societal issues of drugs, mental health and housing rest with senior government. As long as Ottawa and Victoria sit on their hands, there will always be gaps in service.

A final decision on RCMP staffing will be made in April when the city’s core services review is completed (there is funding to maintain the status quo until then).

If the cuts do occur, it will be interesting to see who is right about public safety — Burgess or Sawatzky? And no matter what statistics show, the challenge will be managing public perception. If merchants and residents believe crime has become worse with fewer officers, then that is the situation the city will have to address.

 

It should be pointed out that then DVA president Mary-Jo O’Keefe is now a city councillor. She raised her hand against the motion approving the RCMP budget.