The number of phone calls Vancouver residents abandoned in 2022 after calling the police department’s non-emergency line reached 91,193 last year — a 10-year high, according to Vancouver Police Department statistics.
The increase in abandoned calls from 2021 (88,083) and 2020 (50,666) shows a continuing trend that has concerned Police Chief Adam Palmer and members of the Vancouver Police Board, including Patricia Barnes.
“It’s a problem,” Barnes told Palmer at a meeting in February.
Palmer told Barnes he would have more to say on the topic in an in-camera meeting that same day. But the chief and some of his officers have been vocal about their concerns in previous meetings, interviews and reports.
Palmer has also pointed out the VPD’s concerns are not unique to Vancouver, with the issue a topic with the BC Association of Chiefs of Police, which continues to work with the E-Comm 911 call centre to reduce the number of abandoned calls.
'Under-reporting of crime'
A police report that went before the board last month said abandoned calls not only negatively impact residents but also damages the reputation of police departments serviced by E-Comm.
“Callers often do not distinguish E-Comm from the police department they are trying to reach,” the report said. “This leads to the under-reporting of crime and an underestimation of the actual demand for policing in Vancouver, or the amount of police resources required to adequately address crime concerns.”
In a presentation to the police board more than a year ago, Simon Demers, the VPD’s director of planning, research and audit section, said the department’s analysis of the 88,000 abandoned calls in 2021 suggested there would have been an additional 1,700 reports of break-ins to homes and businesses last year.
Added to those crime reports would have been 1,000 thefts, 600 assaults, 500 calls related to mischief and 200 for fraud, said Demers, whose report focused on the "crime severity index" in Vancouver, which remains higher than the national average.
That analysis, along with the well-documented drop in property crime since the pandemic was declared in 2020, helps explain why the VPD has also seen fewer calls for service over the past four years.
Statistics show calls decreased from 268,626 in 2019 to 218,447 in 2022.
City of Vancouver paid $24 million to E-Comm
Last year, the City of Vancouver paid E-Comm $24 million to provide dispatch services for police and fire departments, with $20 million for the police portion.
The city also contributes to a regional fund via the Metro Vancouver agency that pays for the call-taking portion of 911 ambulance calls, which get transferred to BC Emergency Health Services.
The regional fund totalled $4.2 million in 2020.
A complaint that went before the police board last year provided an example of the frustration people have when calling the VPD’s non-emergency line.
A citizen complained about waiting two hours on a non-emergency line to report a man lighting a fire on a sidewalk near Broadway and Collingwood.
He never got connected to an operator.
The next day the citizen, whose name was redacted in his written complaint, made a second attempt to report the incident and got the same disappointing result.
The incident occurred Sept. 7, 2021 when the citizen said he approached the man about lighting the fire. The man then pointed a “hand torch” in the citizen’s face before lunging at him. The citizen pushed him back and left the scene.
The citizen didn’t think the incident warranted a 911 call. He said he tried to report the crime online but discovered that because violence was involved, it couldn’t be reported.
“I'm very concerned that there seems currently to be no effective way for citizens to report non‐emergency criminal activity to the city or to the VPD,” the citizen wrote.
“I recognize that the incident in question was relatively minor but documenting and tracking such low‐priority incidents must surely be valuable for developing crime prevention strategies and citizens surely should not have to wait for 911 emergency situations in order to report crimes.”
'I feel bad'
The police department report in response to the citizen’s complaint pointed to E-Comm’s “operational staff shortages, which have affected their ability to meet their target goals” as the reason for the complainant’s inability to file a report.
“In this particular incident, it appears that the complainant unfortunately called during a time when there were lower staffing levels,” said the report authored by Sgt. Mehrban Sidhu.
E-Comm president Oliver Gruter-Andrew told Glacier Media in an interview last year that he understood the criticisms of citizens and police and was working with departments to reduce the number of abandoned calls.
“I feel bad — it's not what it should be,” Gruter-Andrew said in February 2022.
“We are well aware of the issue and the underlying causes. It's been a topic of discussion between us and our funders for a number of years now. We are working with our funders in partnership to resolve this because it affects everybody.”