Vancouver city council agreed Wednesday (March 30) to host a forum on public safety in April and invite a diverse group of agencies including police, health officials, housing providers and the provincial government to deliver presentations related to the topic.
The move was initiated by Coun. Melissa De Genova who said the forum was needed to address ongoing concerns raised by residents about crime, street disorder and feeling unsafe in their neighbourhoods.
“I'm looking forward to hearing from the people of Vancouver about their experiences, and what would make Vancouver safer and more livable for them,” said De Genova, who is married to a Vancouver police officer.
Invitations will now go out to the Vancouver Police Department, Vancouver Police Board, Vancouver Park Board, Vancouver Coastal Health, BC Housing, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, BC Prosecution Service and BC Human Rights Commission.
'Stay in our lane'
How the forum will translate to actions not already undertaken by the agencies, including the ongoing work of the city’s homeless outreach and social policy teams was unclear to Coun. Christine Boyle, who questioned De Genova’s intention for the forum.
Boyle noted council has heard from many residents over the last term on topics related to homelessness, drug use and people living with a mental illness. Boyle suggested the forum could result in vulnerable people being stigmatized by other residents.
Council meetings related to the former Strathcona Park homeless encampment and an application by Vancouver Coastal Health to set up an indoor injection site on the edge of Yaletown saw some of Boyle’s concerns play out in comments made from speakers.
“I don't want to presuppose what we're going to hear at this meeting, and I think that that is going to inform what comes back to us in looking at actions,” De Genova said.
“I feel that we have to stay in our lane, but there's a role for us in public safety. There's a role for the VPD in public safety. There's a role for BC housing to provide input into that, and for the ministry of mental health and addictions.”
'Poor-bashing gong show'
Coun. Pete Fry said it was important to give all people an opportunity to be heard by council and connect with agencies working to improve public safety for all residents, no matter their income bracket or personal challenges.
Fry, who lives in Strathcona, said residents who learn about the forum shouldn’t conclude that it is designed for council to only hear from “the wealthy or the pearl-clutching yuppies, or the NIMBYs or whatever.”
“I regularly talk to folks who are vulnerable populations who are challenged with issues of safety in our city — everyone from older illicit drinkers in the Downtown Eastside, Chinese elders in the neighbourhood, small businesses, people in social housing,” Fry said. "So I don't think it should be considered the exclusive realm of just the wealthy.”
Added Fry: “And I will be counting on our chair at the time of this conversation to ensure that it does not become some kind of poor-bashing gong show. I think this will be a complex conversation, but I think it's one that we need to have.”
De Genova’s motion directs staff to work with the VPD to develop “an action plan” and report back to council no later than June of this year. The report should include recommendations “to address and mitigate public safety concerns and issues.”
Public safety strategy
Her motion also calls for staff to take information from the forum to inform a longer-term goal of creating a Vancouver “community safety and well-being strategy, which seeks to understand and address the root causes of inequity so that all residents have access to the people, places, programs and supports necessary for their safety and well-being.”
That part of the motion was added by Coun. Michael Wiebe, who has pushed for a public safety strategy similar to other cities such as Burnaby. Wiebe first raised the need for a strategy during budget discussions in December 2020, saying Vancouver didn’t have one.
That caused Police Chief Adam Palmer to challenge Wiebe’s assertion.
Palmer said he was very familiar with community safety plans in Burnaby and Surrey. But, he continued, he didn’t think people were aware of the “sophisticated plans” connected to the VPD.
He mentioned the department’s mental health strategy, its drug policy, the force’s de-escalation training and community outreach teams “that have reduced the interactions people have with police by over 50 per cent, and hospital visits by over 60 per cent.”
“I really feel there’s a lack of understanding that you’re looking to some plan somewhere else when actually you’ve got an amazing plan right here in your own backyard,” the chief said at the time.
“It can be improved upon, but the plans that are being mentioned actually aren’t as sophisticated as the plans that already exist.”
Crime continues to plummet
The call for a forum comes as overall crime in the city continues to plummet, according to Vancouver police statistics for 2021 and as reported by Vancouver Is Awesome in January.
At the same time, random stranger assaults, broken store windows, graffiti and racism continue to be topics of concern for police and residents.
No date has been set for the forum in April but it could run over several days, depending on interest from the public and how many residents register to speak either via phone or in person at city hall.