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New West police taking action to address concerns about downtown livability

Times have changed – a 1990’s approach may no longer work
An increase in homelessness is among the concerns being raised by some downtown residents and businesses.

A police response isn’t always the best solution for addressing many of the safety and livability concerns being raised about downtown New Westminster, says the city’s police chief.

Chief Const. Dave Jansen recently presented the New Westminster police board with a report about the police department’s response to downtown livability and safety concerns. The report responded to concerns raised by delegations at the November and January police board meetings, where downtown residents and businesses voiced concerns about nuisance and safety in the neighbourhood.

 “We want the community to know that we have heard them. We recognize it,” Jansen told the police board on Feb. 15. “We have heard about the nuisance type of behaviors and we have also heard about some of the criminal offenses that people are experiencing.”

In recent months, the police department has received complaints about a variety of issues including an increase in mischief, graffiti, verbal harassment, open drug use and violent behavior. People have also expressed concern about an increase in homelessness and the overall livability of the area.

In a nine-page report to the police board, Jansen outlined short-term actions being undertaken by the NWPD in response to complaints from residents and businesses and some of the challenges faced by the NWPD.

The report included crime statistics from September to January in the years 2019, 2020 and 2021. The statistics showed that some crime categories, such as business break and enters, were up in 2021, but other crimes were down or consistent with previous years.

Recognizing that there have been challenges with the NWPD non-emergency line provided by E-Comm, Jansen said the police department isn’t basing its responses on statistics.

“We are listening to people and we are doing our best to address those concerns as they come up,” he said.

In addition to engaging with downtown residents and businesses about their concerns, the police department will continue to work closely with the city to address issues in the downtown, Jansen said.

“The city has put together quite an extensive plan, both in the short-term and medium-term to address some of the issues, not just in the downtown but citywide. I think our position as a department, and the board’s support of it, is that policing is not the only answer to these concerns that are brought forward, that it needs to be a more holistic approach,” Jansen said. “Working with our city partners is a good way to do that, and we will continue to do that.”

What’s happening?

Here are some of the ongoing actions being taken in response to concerns raised about the downtown.

* NWPD analysts, senior leaders and various staff are meeting to review weekly trends and hotspots. That information is then provided to staff so they can use it to help with their daily work and so frontline staff can focus their patrol time in “trending areas” when they’re not responding to calls for service.

* When staffing allows, the NWPD will continue to allocate an additional uniformed member to its crime reduction unit, to assist with the CRU’s work on addressing hotspots in the city.

* The police department will continue to work with city hall on short-term and longer-term solutions. Issues being addressed include: improvements to general cleanliness and the provision of 24-hour public toilets in the downtown; homeless outreach and added emergency shelter capacity; opioid epidemic and illicit drug response; businesses support and engagement; and the need to work with Fraser Health in addressing the mental health issues that are contributing to an increase in homelessness and illicit drug use.

* The NWPD will continue to support the city-led work regarding the development of a new model to address crisis health management. With the goal of creating a pilot community-based crisis management program in New Westminster.

“We are going to continue to support the city in their work with the Peer Assisted Crisis Team – the PACT team,” Jansen said Feb. 15. “It was at council yesterday and got approval to move forward with some more work that’s being done, which is awesome. We are very supportive of that and hope to see that work come to reality in the not too distant future.”

According to Jansen’s report, a “high percentage” of the concerns raised by businesses and residents relate to nuisance or non-criminal-related matters. He said the NWPD is committed to protecting the safety and security of all persons while respecting their fundamental human rights, but police alone won’t be able to resolve the issues – nor should they be seen as the best solution for what is occurring.

“Homelessness is not a crime. Time and again, we are asked to get involved in issues that are outside of our mandate,” said the report. “The unhoused need housing, they do not need police. We play a role in this issue and, to address that, have created policy that lays out our role, the applicable laws and the most appropriate resources for staff to call upon to assist in these situations.

The report stated that open drug use is also a difficult issue for frontline officers to navigate because most people who openly using drugs have an addiction – and are in need of medical intervention, a safe supply and treatment on demand.

“Rarely do they need the police,” said the report.

“Times have changed”

As someone who lives and regularly walks in the downtown, Mayor Jonathan Cote said he’s seen an increase in social challenges and social issues facing the neighbourhood in the past few years.

“Having said that, I think some of the discussion has been a little bit inflammatory,” said Cote, chair of the police board. “And maybe sometimes I scratch my head and say, ‘Are we talking about the same neighbourhood that I walk through every day?’ I think sometimes when we inflame discussions, we actually distract ourselves from having a more meaningful and thoughtful discussion.”

Cote said the NWPD is challenged by the public’s perception of the role of police officers – and the reality of limitations they have in addressing some of those issues.

“I think some people will go to strategies that may have been acceptable in the 1990s or have been done by the police,” he said. “But the reality is times have changed a lot, and thinking about how you deal with these issues and actually getting to the root of the issues has evolved quite a bit from those times.”

Cote said the New Westminster Police Department’s newly adopted 2022 to 2024 strategic plan acknowledges the city wants to apply a compassionate lens to the work being undertaken regarding social issues. He said it’s important to determine what the role for police is and isn’t in addressing these issues, and making sure that message gets out to the community.

Police board member Shirley Heafey said the report was “eye-opening” and provided a lot of information about the work being done to address concerns in downtown. She said it also points out that police are not really trained to deal with things like mental health issues, even thought it often falls on them to respond to those calls.

“I think this would be very, very helpful for the community to read,” she said.

The report – Response to Downtown Livability Concerns – is included in the New Westminster police board’s Feb. 15, 2022 agenda.

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus

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