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New B.C. public safety coalition calls on governments to take action on theft, violence

Tanya Finley of Nelson Neighbourhood Network: "B.C. is in distress. Enough is enough."
Clint Mahlman, president and CEO of London Drugs, at a news conference Monday in Vancouver to launch the Save Our Streets coalition.

A new public safety coalition that includes some of B.C.’s biggest retailers such as London Drugs has banded together to call on all levels of government to take action on what it says is a growing crime and violence crisis in the province.

The Save Our Streets (SOS) coalition kicked off its campaign Monday in the atrium of the Woodward’s building in Vancouver, where London Drugs’ president and CEO Clint Mahlman demanded government and justice administration officials “step up and do their jobs to make our streets safer.”

“The escalating violence, vandalism and theft on our streets and in communities throughout British Columbia is at a crisis point,” said Mahlman, the founding chairperson of the coalition.

“Every British Columbian knows that the escalation in crime and violence in our communities has reached epidemic proportions. And it's been building for a very long time.”

Mahlman didn’t provide crime data for B.C. cities but told reporters after the news conference that London Drugs lost more than $10 million from thefts last year at its 80 stores in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

That figure does not account for vandalism or staff becoming victims of violence.

In one case a few months ago, Mahlman said, an employee was attacked with a hatchet after the employee stopped a person who attempted to leave the store without paying for an item. Some of London Drugs’ staff is now fitted with “stab vests.”

“These levels of violence are not acceptable to anyone, and if this was happening to government employees, if this was happening to their own families, we think there would have been action by now,” he said.

London Drugs was in the news recently connected to a rumour that it will close its store at Granville and Georgia streets because of the number of thefts. Mahlman responded to that rumour Monday.

“We are not closing any stores at this time,” he said. “However, if we don't see action, and we continue to suffer the violence, the theft and vandalism, those all have to be part of the consideration set. But it'll be the very last step that we want to do.”

Reporters also heard from Karen Kuwica of the Nanaimo Area Public Safety Association, Tanya Finley of the Nelson Neighbourhood Network and Adam Jaffer of Metro Vancouver Crime Stoppers.

Kuwica said her neighbourhood has lost half of its businesses because of “social disorder, fire and safety concerns.” Five years ago, she said, Nanaimo was “forever changed” when one of the largest tent cities in Canada was established.

“Since then, our community has been trying to cope with escalating changes and growth — the same changes that are now happening in communities all over our province,” she said.

“We're in an extreme social crisis. The opioid crisis, the housing and affordability crisis, the mental health and addictions crisis — all converging into a public safety emergency.”

Tanya Finley of the Nelson Neighbourhood Network at Monday's news conference. Photo Mike Howell

'It's cruel and disgraceful'

Finley owns a bar and restaurant in the heart of Nelson, which she said is now “the centre of homelessness, crime and addiction.” She said the safety of seniors, children, the integrity of residents’ homes and businesses are being jeopardized.

“Our safety and our rights are being taken away,” she said, before aiming her remarks at government. “It is obvious to me that your homes, your paycheques, your businesses, your sleep, your mental health are not being threatened. You're not being defecated on, ransacked or robbed.”

Of the people on the street, Finley said she felt like she was watching government-assisted slow suicide. She pointed to people being revived from overdoses multiple times a day, only to be left without “dignified” health care or a place to stay, noting the toll winter takes on a homeless person.

“It is cruel and disgraceful,” she said.

“The Kootenays are being swallowed up by pilot projects, Band-Aids and lack of oversight and mismanagement. Drugs are killing so many people and drug dealers are profiting for killing their clients. Criminals and dealers are more emboldened than ever before — and they are laughing at you and your laws.”

Added Finley: “B.C. is in distress. Enough is enough.”

'Non-political, non-prescriptive'

Jaffer spoke to the frustration that he and others are feeling about the state of cities.

“Government has the ability to change that,” he said. “But to do that, they need to hear from us — all of us. Governments have the resources, the expertise, the legal and legislative authority, and the responsibility to make changes that are needed to make communities feel safe again.”

Though the speakers referred to chronic offenders, street disorder and people being released from jail no sooner than arrested, the coalition did not provide a specific list of recommendations, other than to pressure politicians.

There was little or no discussion about whether there was a need for more housing, a safe supply of drugs or treatment facilities for people living with mental illness or a drug addiction, or both.

“Everything's a factor,” Mahlman said. “The SOS coalition is non-political, non-prescriptive. We've been talking to all governments of all political types for years, and we don't believe that it's our job to be prescriptive.”

Added Mahlman: “We've elected these officials. They hired the best people that they can — criminologists and others to act on our behalf. They have the resources, they have the accountability, the responsibility and control the budgets to take action. And that's what we're asking them to do.”

Vancouver police make 258 arrests

The news conference came the day before the B.C. government announced that small businesses in B.C. will soon be able to apply for funding to help recover up to $2,000 in costs from vandalism and receive $1,000 for vandalism prevention.

Last week, the Vancouver police announced that it made 258 arrests in a recent project to crack down on violent and chronic shoplifters. The project was a continuation of the department’s focus on working with retailers to stop thefts.

Mahlman welcomed the business grants and was not critical of police.

“They do whatever they can with the resources they have, but my sense is they're equally frustrated when they see the same person coming in and committing the same crimes often over and over again,” he said.

Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s Solicitor General and Public Safety Minister, said in an emailed statement Monday that government is concerned with incidents of violence and vandalism in the province and across the country.

Farnworth said government is “taking action” via its “Safer Communities Action Plan” to make sure everyone feels safe in their community.

He added that government has created 12 “repeat violent offending intervention initiative hubs” throughout the province, with teams made up of police and dedicated prosecutors and probation officers.

“More than 300 offenders have already been identified for the program,” the minister said. “This fall, we are launching financial support for businesses experiencing crime and vandalism. Together we will deliver results and build safe communities.”

Farnworth’s ministry also said government has introduced unexplained wealth order legislation to enable the civil forfeiture office to pursue ill-gotten assets tactically and more efficiently.

“This will allow the provincial government to continue going after the houses, cars and luxury goods of high-level organized criminals who profit from criminal activity, which in some cases contributes to the toxic drug crisis harming communities,” the ministry said.

Farnworth’s ministry mentioned Vancouver police’s recent project, along with similar enforcement action taken in Victoria, Delta, Langley, Richmond, Burnaby and West Kelowna, where police there arrested 23 shoplifters and recovered “thousands of dollars” of merchandise.

Some other members of the SOS coalition include Aritzia, Lululemon, MEC Mountain Equipment Company, 7-Eleven Canada, Surrey Board of Trade, Clean Streets Penticton, Kamloops Citizens for Change, Marquis Wine, Clean Up V9L in Duncan, Citizens Take Action in Dawson Creek and Fort St. John and Chilliwack Beware Crime and Safety.