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This Election, Crime Never Sleeps

In Vancouver, public safety is the big, blurry campaign issue.

Sam Cooper 8 Nov

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Interview after interview and candidate after candidate, the NPA has hammered on bolstering the four pillars to attack drugs and crime in their election campaign strategy.

One might think the leader of a conservative party focusing on crime and public safety would be atop a soap box calling for increased police force funding.

But thinking this of Sam Sullivan, one would be wrong.

In fact, put Sullivan and his left of center competitor Jim Green together for a blind taste test on enforcement and crime issues and you might be surprised to find who is boosting the VPD and who is hinting at efforts to reform the department.

Sullivan says with a 25 percent share of the city's total budget, the police force must find ways to make funding go further, while Green seems to support the status quo.

Then there's the fact that public safety crusader Sullivan has admitted to funding the drug habits of a heroin-using prostitute and a crack smoking acquaintance. Sullivan says he did it out of compassion and to educate himself, but Mayor Larry Campbell and Vancouver Police Union president Tom Stamitakis say Sullivan's actions call into doubt whether he is fit to serve as Police Board chair.

No, it's not your usual law and order campaign. But then, Vancouver isn't your usual drugs and crime town.

'Brutal to the police'

The gulf between COPE's Light and Classic factions widened in last spring's budget hearings when the VPD asked council to increase funding in order to add hundreds of new officers. COPE Classic said no thank-you, as Tim Louis accused the VPD of being a "rogue" department with a habit of soaring over budget, much to Mayor Campbell's displeasure.

Campbell, Green, and the Lights moved to fund force increases, with NPA councillor Peter Ladner essentially backing them.

But even though Ladner called his fellow NPA councillor's position "brutal to the police," Sullivan asked the VPD to find a way to hire additional officers without additional funding, by cutting down their overtime costs and looking for internal efficiencies.

In the end, council passed a motion to give the VPD funding for 50 new officers this year and 50 next year, without Sullivan's support.

Green says because of Sullivan's vote last spring, "He has not been there on crime." "He was only prepared to give support to police through efficiencies. In other words, no money," Green said.

But Sullivan says he wasn't hard on the VPD by challenging them to look for internal budgetary savings.

"I think the force is a department like any other. I want value for money," Sullivan said.

'Root of all evil'

How much say does council really have with Vancouver's police force? According to Vancouver's drug policy coordinator Donald MacPherson, "The police are pretty independent. The city funds them but doesn't have a lot of control." But he adds the mayor's seat does have some influence, as chair of the five-member Police Board.

Underlying Sullivan's cost saving philosophy of policing is an intention to examine force allocations and coordination if he becomes mayor -- something the force may not welcome.

Asked for his synopsis of crime in Vancouver over the past three years, Green says problems arose from a relatively understaffed police force and a lack of welfare funding from the province.

"A lot of people in the city have no choice but to create crime. You could say lack of money is the root of all evil."

"The reason we got so far behind (with crime) was a lack of funding," Green said. "But two weeks ago, Chief Graham said the crime rate for the city has gone down 11 percent in the last year."

Not surprisingly, Sullivan's take on the 11 percent crime reduction in downtown Vancouver is different.

"The police did exert some control and restore public order, (but) it has shifted the problems into other neighborhoods, which was entirely predictable," Sullivan said. "We need to be more aggressive about the four pillars and look at innovative approaches."

Sullivan says the Naomi heroin maintenance trial has offered glimmers of hope worth pursuing. Another innovative approach he favours would be installing a new commissioner for public safety to coordinate all agencies relevant in the struggle against drugs and crime.

"It's more than the police involved," Sullivan said. "There are inspectors, non-profits, school and park boards and council, and the federal and provincial government and the Ministry of Health."

"Unless they are all communicating effectively we won't be able to tackle our problems."

Crime by the numbers

Vancouver Board of Trade chief economist Dave Park says generally crime has been decreasing in North America for some time, but when it comes to property crime, Vancouver fares badly.

"In 2002 and 2003, Vancouver was proportionately the worst of all Canadian cities for property crime," Park said in an interview, adding property crime accounts for almost 80 percent of total crime in Vancouver, and is largely driven by underlying drug problems, with addicts stealing and selling goods to illegitimate fencing operations in order to feed their habits.

Park said in 2003 there were 8, 634 reported property crimes per 100, 000 people in Vancouver city, a one percent decline from 2002, compared to 7,310 per 100,000 in greater Vancouver. Within the city, he said the downtown peninsula was particularly hard hit with thefts from vehicles.

"In 2004 the downtown has improved, but it has bumped up in other areas of the city," Park said. "City-wide property crime rates between 2003 and 2004 are almost identical."

Vancouver's drug policy coordinator Donald MacPherson backs up Park's stats, saying VPD enforcement operations worked downtown, but crime squirted into other areas.

"They have crime reductions in the DTES, but it does move around," he said. "Now we see some movement to other districts, like Cambie and Seymour."

While Park concludes more police officers are needed to fight property crime in Vancouver, SFU criminologist Neal Boyd says force additions will improve public confidence, but won't reduce crime.

Does size matter?

"In lived experience, most of the research suggests force size doesn't result in crime reductions," Boyd said.

He explains a huge increase allowing officers to be allocated on every street corner would have a big impact theoretically, but this kind of critical mass addition never happens.

"Police work is reactive not preventative," Boyd said. "If (for example) you increased from 1000 to 1500 officers, you would probably get reductions in crime, but we haven't seen those kind of experiences."

Asked just what kind of force increase would effectively reduce crime in Vancouver, Boyd says, "Nothing that would be politically feasible."

However, VPD media rep Cst. Howard Chow disagreed with Boyd's assessment, citing various studies which suggest force size can reduce crime. According to Chow, additional officers will reduce police response times, thus improving public safety.

Chow said the VPD has, in fact, taken a bite out of property crime, with operations targeting street dealers and illegitimate pawnshops in the DTES. They plan to roll out a major property crime fighting project in December.

"We've made a commitment to reduce property crime 20 percent in the next four years," Chow said. "And on Dec. 5, we will launch an innovative, multi-pronged property crime program. It's the largest of its kind in North America."

In the midst of Vancouver's council elections, Chow refused to say which mayoral candidate might work best with the VPD, but didn't respond favourably to Sullivan's ideas of finding internal cost efficiencies by reducing overtime or installing a new crime commissioner.

"Police work is increasingly complex, so we can have perfect storm scenarios like last year when we had mass retirements and a lot of crime at the time," Chow said. "You can't plan (to avoid overtime) with the hours needed in times like that."

He added from the VPD's perspective, a crime czar would be redundant.

"We already liaise with most of the other agencies," he said.

Myth buster?

Over four years ago, when Sullivan's NPA held the majority on council, Sullivan touted a book called Police for the Future to at least one journalist at The Vancouver Sun. The book, by State University of New York School of Criminal Justice Dean David H. Bayley proclaims the link between police force size and crime rates to be "a myth" and makes other assertions sure to raise the pulse of law and order hardliners. "Police do not prevent crime…repeated analysis has consistently failed to find any connection between the number of police officers and crime rates," Bayley writes.

He offered a "blueprint" that would redefine the role of police, putting them to work reducing "crime and disorder within particular localities by drawing up plans for the utilization of all community resources."

Two of Bayley's essential arguments, that officers must be allocated to more than management and detective roles, and police must be coordinated with outside agencies, are evident in Sullivan's philosophy of policing today.

Sullivan preferred not to talk about the relevance of force sizes during the election, but discussed his understanding of crime in broad terms.

"I don't believe it's the size of the force (that matters)," Sullivan told The Tyee. "It's the size of the force on the streets."

"We have a crime and disorder problem in Vancouver," Sullivan continued. "Can we increase the ratio of police on the streets? Can we get the overtime down? If we can do that, those savings will mean we afford to put more officers on the streets. Jim Green just wants to throw money at the police force and hope that solves the problem."

But Sullivan stops well short of guaranteeing that he won't increase the size of the police force. Unless he becomes mayor and gets to sit on the police board, Sullivan says he won't find out whether his ideas for improving police force performance are well founded.

"I don't know where they (officers) are allocated. I will have to be on the board to find that out. I don't know, the allocations may all be legitimate. If they are, the taxpayers will have to come up with more money."

Asked whether he thinks such close scrutiny of VPD workings might cause conflicts with Chief Graham, Sullivan says no. "I will be fair. I will be reasonable."

Sam Cooper writes is reporting on municipal elections and other issues for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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