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Nanaimo city councillors discuss perceptions and realities of neighbourhood safety

Council debates recently released safety audits
Multiple officers responded to a report of a stabbing at Fifth Street and Bruce Avenue on Saturday, Oct. 2, but injuries weren’t serious, investigators found no weapon and witness reports were conflicting, said RCMP. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)

The city recognizes that making citizens safer – and making them feel safer – will be ongoing, complex work.

Nanaimo city councillors, at a meeting Monday, Oct. 4, had a chance to discuss neighbourhood safety audits recently released by Nanaimo Community Policing that showed a majority of residents in and around the downtown don’t feel safe where they live, especially when walking after dark.

The audits included crime statistics, survey data, first-hand observations, and discussion with neighbourhood associations and business owners and other residents.

“The purpose in providing this information today is to also capture within it the essence of what the communities are experiencing and it goes beyond the stats to what they are daily living through,” said Supt. Lisa Fletcher, the Nanaimo RCMP’s officer in charge.

Councillors were presented with the safety audits for their information only, and weren’t being asked to make any decisions at this week’s meeting.

“None of this is new. We’ve been dealing with this since the ’80s. So how are we going to change it?” asked Coun. Sheryl Armstrong, a retired RCMP sergeant, wondering if 15 more police officers would provide the detachment with the resources necessary to be proactive rather than reactive.

Coun. Don Bonner noted that the majority of police callouts were for concerns such as disturbances, suspicious occurrences, bylaw offences and mischief rather than more serious offences, and said residents’ sense of being unsafe was a perception.

“Our failure to communicate to the public about the safety within their neighbourhoods, I think is also something that we really need to look at,” he said. “I love this city. I’m quite happy where it’s going. I’m not happy with some of the issues in this city, but I do know it is a relatively safe place to live in and not what people think. So thank you, Facebook, for all of that.”

He wondered if spending millions on solutions to homelessness and addictions would be as effective as spending millions on law enforcement.

Coun. Ian Thorpe rebutted that if people are feeling unsafe, pointing to crime stats isn’t likely to help perceptions.

“To say to somebody, ‘don’t worry, we’re putting a homeless shelter in your neighbourhood, so that will solve the problem and you can all feel safer,’ I don’t think neighbourhoods are going to buy that either without an argument and I don’t blame them,” he said.

Coun. Tyler Brown suggested that understanding what both the crime statistics and the perceptions about safety say is important for councillors in their decision-making.

“There is an under-reporting for whatever reason … [or] people’s perceptions doesn’t necessarily match what the data’s telling us,” he said. “Both are very interesting, but I think they both trigger different policy responses.”

Christy Wood, Nanaimo Community Policing coordinator, said “crime is very complex” and addressing it will require a multi-pronged approach including crime prevention and “upstream” solutions such as improved mental health and addictions treatment. Fletcher said whether or not the RCMP asks for more officers, it will be able to take information from the safety audits to try to leverage its current resources to improve service to the public.

“Obviously moving forward we would love every opportunity to continue to build and connect with community agencies, as well as improving our staffing levels,” Fletcher said.

Tim McGrath, president of the Nanaimo Neighbourhood Network representing nearly two dozen neighbourhood groups, asked council to arrange a meeting with B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions to discuss the safety audits and ask for solutions, and also asked the city to work with other municipalities to look at how mental health experts could be dispatched to certain emergency calls.

McGrath said cities around B.C. are facing “a major crisis” in mental health and substance-abuse problems.

“This crisis is making a huge impact on the physical and emotional well-being of our citizens,” he said. “Citizens are feeling less secure, less safe, threatened more in our cities.”

Mayor Leonard Krog said the safety audits show that people feel uncomfortable in their neighbourhoods when they see people with mental health and addictions issues and brain injuries in a state of misery.

“Until that gets fixed, what [RCMP and community policing] are attempting to achieve and are working to achieve with the neighbourhood associations is very positive,” Krog said. “It builds community, it builds a sense of security.”

READ ALSO: Safety audits show residents in and around Nanaimo’s downtown feel unsafe

READ ALSO: Crime in Nanaimo leads to ‘explosion’ of interest in Block Watch

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About the Author: Greg Sakaki

I have been in the community newspaper business for two decades, all of those years with Black Press Media.
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