Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer expressed his frustration Thursday at a public safety forum on the lack of leadership by the provincial government to put someone in charge to ensure agencies are working together to make neighbourhoods safer for all citizens.
Palmer pointed to the Downtown Eastside, including Gastown and Chinatown, as neighbourhoods where poverty, addiction, homelessness and mental illness aren’t being addressed in a comprehensive manner.
“We need to have better coordination at the provincial level and have either a minister or a deputy minister — somebody at a high level of government — who can coordinate all of those responses and have a holistic safety plan because we don't have it right now,” he said at the city council-hosted forum at city hall.
'Nobody's in charge'
At the same time, the chief said, there is “great work” occurring with various agencies working together, including the VPD-Vancouver Coastal Health mental health teams, but it is being conducted in a piecemeal way.
“Nobody’s in charge, like nobody's in charge of the grand picture,” he said, before pointing to Strathcona as a neighbourhood that has issues requiring responses from several provincial ministries.
“You’ve got poverty reduction, you've got employment issues, you've got housing issues, you've got criminal justice issues, you've got attorney general issues, education — there's so many different ministries…that all overlap in that neighbourhood.”
Added Palmer: “But there's nobody really pulling it all together. There's a lot of silos happening in government.”
He said all city departments, including his, have their roles in addressing public safety — whether it be the fire department, community services, park board or engineering — but said only some provincial and federal government entities are “at the table” with the city.
“It’s too disjointed,” the chief said.
Palmer agreed with Coun. Pete Fry who asked whether it was time to set up another Vancouver Agreement, an initiative back in the late 1990s, early 2000s when the city, provincial and federal government committed to working together on helping the most vulnerable in the Downtown Eastside.
The chief also encouraged council to pressure government to fund more Vancouver Coastal Health programs, saying it would be the one area where the city would get the “biggest bang for your buck.”
He pointed to the success of two teams staffed by officers and health care professionals who conduct proactive visits with people living with a mental illness. The programs have cut emergency room visits, decreased 911 calls and led to some people getting housing and counseling.
The chief’s assessment was backed up by Dr. J.J. Sidhu, a psychiatrist at Vancouver General Hospital, who said nurses, clinicians and doctors couldn’t do their jobs without assistance of police, although he emphasized there are calls where officers aren’t present.
“The police that are involved in these situations are excellent, incredibly thoughtful and nuanced in those situations,” Sidhu told council. “So we need more of that.”
Forum resumes May 10
The forum was billed as one where citizens could speak to council about their concerns regarding public safety. But questions to Palmer and other city staff, along with presentations, took up most of the four-hour session, with more than 60 speakers still yet to address council.
The forum will resume May 10.
Once the forum concludes, city staff plans to prepare a report for council by June on a community safety strategy for all citizens, including the most vulnerable, who are seven times more likely to be victims of crime, council heard Thursday.
Police statistics show crime continued to plummet in 2021, with break-ins to homes, businesses and vehicles having dropped by more than 20 per cent compared to 2020, the year the pandemic was declared and saw unprecedented decreases in property crime.
Those trends have continued into this year.
At the same time, random assaults and reports of aggressive shoplifters have increased, with violent crime up 7.1 per cent since last year, according to Palmer, who added that smashed windows at downtown businesses and graffiti continue to be a problem.
The chief also pointed to recent data showing a significant number of calls from citizens to the police's non-emergency line are not being answered by E-Comm call takers, as reported last week by Vancouver Is Awesome.