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Downtown New West still a safe place to be

NWPD, city and social services working on plans
Stabbing - Columbia Street Street
Police, paramedics and firefighters responded just before 10 p.m. on Jan. 17 to a report of a stabbing at Columbia Street and Fourth Street, just steps from the entrance of the Columbia SkyTrain station.

Downtown New West is a safe place to be despite a recent spate of “random incidents” in the neighbourhood, says the New Westminster Police Department.

In recent weeks, police have reported a number of crimes in the downtown, including an alleged assault outside the New Westminster SkyTrain station on Jan.  22 and a man allegedly threatening people with a knife outside the Columbia SkyTrain station on Jan. 20. Those came soon after a Jan. 14 incident at Sixth and Carnarvon streets in which a man is alleged to have attempted to take a baby in a stroller, fought with a motorist and spit on a police officer and a Jan. 17 stabbing near Fourth and Columbia streets in which two people were sent to hospital following a fight among a group of about nine people.

“New West is still a safe place,” said NWPD spokesperson Sgt. Sanjay Kumar. “I know the four random incidents over the last few weeks have people on edge.”

While the incidents of the last few weeks are troubling, Kumar said the police department, the city and social services agencies are working collaboratively to address issues in the downtown and come up with solutions.

“The downtown is a safe place. I feel like these incidents come in waves and I feel like we are at a peak right now, where we have had four incidents in the last few weeks. But the downtown core is still a safe place,” he told the Record. “It is going to be a collaborative approach with the city, with the police department, with social services to address what is going on, and not just what is going on in the moment but how to address it, for lack of a better term, upstream, essentially before the incidents happen – find out what’s happening in these individuals’ lives that’s causing them to go down this path, and addressing it at that point.”

Kumar said New West is “a very unique city” that is smaller than neighbouring communities like Delta, Coquitlam and Burnaby but it has five SkyTrain stations and a growing population, particularly in the downtown.

“As one of the (NWPD) recruiters, one of the best ways to describe it is that it’s big city policing in a smaller community-based city,” he said.

According to statistics recently presented to the New Westminster police board, there was a 1% decrease in calls for service in the city from January to November 2021, with fewer calls to the West End (down 12%), Mid-Uptown (down 1%), East End (down 11%) and Other (down 19%). During that same time frame, calls for service went up in several neighbourhoods – Queensborough (up 9%), Downtown (up 5%) and SkyTrain stations (up 12%). (NWPD officials noted that many people abandoned calls to the non-emergency line in 2021 because of lengthy wait times, so some crimes may be under-reported.)

The report stated that calls for service in November 2021 were “above normal range” in the Downtown, where there were 392 calls (a normal range for November is 323 to 384) and at SkyTrain stations, where there were 32 calls (a normal range is 16 to 24).

Balancing act

In response to concerns raised in recent months about safety and livability in the downtown neighbourhood, Kumar said the NWPD’s crime reduction unit has been doing more patrols in the downtown core and talking to vulnerable community members. But he noted that focusing on the downtown takes officers away from addressing other initiatives and concerns expressed by citizens.

“It’s a bit of balancing act,” he said. “What I can tell you for sure is the number of police officers that are on patrol hasn’t changed much over the last few years. The city is growing but our resources haven’t increased at a similar level.”

According to Kumar, there are often fewer than 10 officers working on patrol at any given time in New Westminster.

“Eight is probably an average,” he said. “Each shift, we try to keep them at a strength of about between 10 and 12 members. But that has to incorporate members who are off sick, are taking annual leave, and anything else that might happen, like if there are other projects that need attention.”

To maximize coverage in the city, Kumar said New West police officers patrol in single-person vehicles.

“The reason for that is so we can have a wider spread of members throughout the city,” he said. “Agencies like Vancouver, they can afford to ride two-person vehicles. But in New West, if we rode two-person vehicles, if we had eight to 10 members, that’s four to five cars on the road, that’s not a lot of coverage. Again, doubling that to having eight or nine or 10 cars on the road. That just spreads our resources out a bit further and we are able to respond to calls quicker.”

Kumar said there’s nothing to suggest the crime situation in New Westminster is any different than what’s happening elsewhere in the region.

“I don’t think it is just a New Westminster problem; I think it’s an entire Lower Mainland issue,” he said. “Each city has its own unique set of problems. I think the issue of these incidents or these person offences increasing is a Lower Mainland issue for sure.”

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus
Email tmcmanus@newwestrecord.com