The Downtown New Westminster Business Improvement Association is appealing to the police board to take action to stop the deterioration of the downtown.
At its Jan. 18 meeting, the board received several letters from downtown business owners who are concerned about safety and livability issues in the area. Karima Jivraj, president of the BIA board, noted a stabbing occurred on Columbia Street the night before the meeting.
“Overnight, there was the fourth major incident on Columbia Street in just under a year. Downtown New West is not feeling safe anymore,” she said. “I had no qualms about walking downtown on Columbia Street before, but now I’m leery. And I am a tough cookie, and a lot of you know that. If I am feeling leery, I’d hate to think of what other people are feeling.”
Jivraj said the BIA members have voiced concerns about a variety of issues, including increased vandalism, shoplifting, harassment, unsafe street behaviours and open drug use.
“Some of these business owners have had to take on additional expenses due to installing extra security, surveillance equipment, doubling up on staff so staff feel safer, and the costs of increased theft and vandalism,” she said. “In addition to the ongoing challenges presented by COVID and construction within the downtown, these concerns are yet another added layer of stress for the businesses and an expense as well.”
Jivraj, owner of Bosley’s by Pet Valu in Columbia Square, said she spent $10,000 to install 18 cameras in her 3,500-square-foot store due to the increase in shoplifting and theft.
“I have been here for close to 11 years and this is the worst I have seen it,” she said.
Jivraj said there was recently a major police take-down in the parking lot outside her store, which rattled her customers and staff.
“We have an issue. We need to be heard and things need to change. We can’t work at revitalizing the downtown if it isn’t safe for residents, business owners or visitors,” she said. “I have serious concerns that a once vibrant neighbourhood is deteriorating so fast.”
Customers are telling downtown businesses they don’t feel safe in the area, Jivraj said.
“We are hearing from staff who work in the downtown that they don’t feel safe locking up at night, walking to their cars or to the SkyTrain by themselves,” she said. “They just don’t feel safe working alone anymore.”
Better communication needed
In addition to concerns about what’s happening in the neighbourhood, Jivraj said businesses are frustrated with the lengthy waits they encounter when calling the New Westminster Police Department’s non-emergency line to report issues. She said businesses want open and transparent communication with the police department regarding their concerns.
“I appreciate that it is not a simple solution. You can’t snap your fingers and expect everything to fall into place; it’s not going to happen. I appreciate that,” she said. “But what we are saying is that when we reach out, don’t make us wait for days before we get an answer. Reach out to us. Talk to us.”
Jivraj believes policing needs to change when it comes to dealing with people who are homeless, have addictions or have mental health issues. But she said they still need to address the crimes that are happening.
“We understand that policing is incredibly hard. Trust me, we have lots of empathy for the people who are un-housed or have mental health challenges, that have addiction issues,” she told the police board. “But at the end of the day, when I have to show up at my business and I have to clean up after somebody that’s left a mess in front of my door, it gets tired very quickly. It is not easy. It is frustrating.”
Chief Const. Dave Jansen said the police department and the city are working to address issues that have been raised in the downtown. He said the NWPD reassigned its crime reduction unit to focus solely on the downtown in November and the department doubled its vulnerable person liaison unit from one to two members.
“There is only one additional person, going from one to two, but it still has an impact on our delivery model and on the patrol division,” he said. “I guess what I would say is that we have seen an increase everywhere in regards to our population growth. We are up about 45% in the last 20 years, whereas we have seen the organization grow by about 4%. I think those pressures are now coming to be realized.”
Jansen said that’s part of the reason why the police board is undertaking a comprehensive operational review of the NWPD. He said it’s hoped that review will assist with decisions that have to be made in the coming months and years.
Jansen assured the BIA that the police department is aware of the concerns and is working to address issues in the downtown.
“We are going to continue to do our best with what resources we have,” he said. “The last thing I would add is that just that we are not in this ourselves. We are working collaboratively with the city. I think the city has got about four- or five-point plan to address some of these issues, and we will continue to work with them on those points.”
Karim Hachlaf, a member of the police board, assured the BIA that the business community’s concerns aren’t falling on deaf ears.
“We are actively having these conversations,” he said. “We know there is still more work to be done.”
Mayor Jonathan Cote, who chairs the police board, said the issues raised are “top of mind” at the police board and the city.
“No doubt we are facing some unique challenges in the downtown and in the city in general, and in the region. The opioid crisis has certainly hit our communities hard, and we are obviously seeing increased poverty and homelessness issues in our communities,” he said. “The city is trying to be proactive in terms of housing solutions but, as we all know, housing solutions don’t happen overnight. They do take time. Obviously, we are working as hard as we can to address those.”
Ruby Campbell, attending her first meeting as a member of the police board, questioned if there’s a way of looking at some of the language included in letters to the board, so they’re a bit more sensitive and mindful of the mental health population. She said some of the language and words used in some of the letters from downtown businesses made her a “little bit uncomfortable.”
“This is public record, those letters,” she said.