Put about 150 average citizens in one room, give them a good question to answer, and it’s amazing how responsible and forward-thinking they can be.
That’s what Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell’s been doing these past couple of months as he’s asked voters to help him make “city choices” on issues like budgetting, homelessness, poverty, safety and policing.
The West End Community Centre played host to the last in this series the morning of Feb 14. It was astounding to see how many readers of this newspaper showed to put in their two-cents’ worth.
And they made smart suggestions. There was no consensus in that room to hire lots of cops in some feeble hope that it would make much difference in safety or crime. And there was no consensus to just kick ass on the street, to round up and push out to other neighbourhoods those who are mentally ill, homeless, drug-addicted and trying to survive.
Instead, there seemed to be a recognition that we need participation from all levels of government to address the issues that lead to crime, untidy streets and to our general feeling of discomfort as we travel the sidewalks.
Not that law enforcement wasn’t talked about. It was-lots.
Of course, there were one or two groups who took a hard-core view of crime: judges should hand down harsher sentences and a criminal with three strikes should be “out,” said one group. Another called for more police.
But most people weren’t interested in simplistic measures that wouldn’t do much good, like tough new vagrancy laws. And the majority saw through calls to simply hire more cops, a perennial call that solves nothing (in a recent Courier piece, columnist Allen Garr noted that the VPD solves only 18 percent of criminal cases, the worst record in the country-and clearly, as Garr points out, “Hardly a recommendation for more money.”).
Instead, citizens called for genuine policing in Vancouver, with the funding and other resources necessary to make it meaningful. More beat cops, better training on minority issues, more foot and bicycle patrols: these were repeated calls as each table reported its top recommendation at the end of the morning’s session. Participants want police to be “extremely visible” in the city’s neighbourhoods-but out of their cars.
There was a call for re-ordering police scheduling to ensure more staffing at night (and not at overtime wages), when most violent crime takes place. Police services should be integrated in a way that makes police grounded in and truly accountable to the various communities they serve, summed up one group.
Finally, one roundtable suggested any increase in the police budget ought go to community policing, and especially to cops walking and riding beats.
Now, that’s something Larry Campbell and the COPE councillors should think about. Campbell made a strategic error a few weeks ago when he committed to a marked increase in the number of cops in this city over the next decade. Citizens at the Feb 14 forum told him to back off. Vancouver’s police don’t deserve a big budget increase. Until police improve their crime-solving track record, until they institute genuine community policing and learn to view this city’s citizens as their masters, rather than their servants, police lobbying for more funds should be rebuffed.
Cops don’t stop crime. Sure, community policing-which is based on problem-solving and neighbourhood prioritizing-can reduce crime before it takes place. But if, and only if, it is combined with social programs that reduce crime. Citizens know that, and they proved it Feb 14.
Now let’s see city hall, Victoria and Ottawa come to the same understanding.
The province needs to chip in by doing something about the mentally ill on the street, by working with the feds on a national housing strategy to reduce the number of homeless (estimated at some 5,000 in Vancouver), by making sure that the people on welfare get the money and job training they need. And by funding the three non-policing pillars of the city’s drug strategy: prevention, harm reduction, and treatment centres (the Gordon Campbell government should be ashamed of its stalling on funding the pillars after Vancouver citizens so clearly voted for it in the last civic election).
“Nobody must be forgotten,” reported one group. What a lovely Valentines thought.
Gareth Kirkby is Managing Editor for Xtra.