Crime trend puzzles even professionals

  • Fri Jul 11th, 2003 6:00am
  • News

By Heidi Bevington-Crime is increasing at the north end of the islands and going down at the south end, according to RCMP statistics for the last ten years, and it’s not clear why. That’s the conclusion of our brief look at the trends in both the Masset and Queen Charlotte RCMP detachment areas. The trend has professionals in Masset concerned enough to take a long hard look at the problem, and to launch a ‘safer communities’ initiative to deal with one aspect-violence in relationships-, and to try to get the community more involved in reversing the trend.
The crime rate -the number of crimes per thousand people per year- in the Masset RCMP detachment area (Tlell River bridge and north) was 210 per thousand people in 2001, up from 157 in 1992. In the Queen Charlotte detachment area, the crime rate in 2001 was 71 per thousand, down from 143 in 1992. For detailed statistics see the accompanying chart and also the RCMP web site, www.pssg.gov.bc.ca/police_services/publications).
While the crime rate reflects all crimes and is adjusted for population, individual crimes, which make up the rate, mostly show a similar trend.
At the north end, between 1992 and 2001, violent crimes increased from 113 to 141, while at the south end they dropped from 60 to 48. Sexual offences climbed from 17 to 22 in the north end, but dropped sharply from 21 to 3 in the south.
However, not all crimes showed the same trend between 1992 and 2001; property crime dropped at both ends, in the north from 163 to 146, in the south from 204 to 66.
Staff Sgt. Jerry Anderson is advisory nonn-commissioned officer for the north coast. He oversees both the Masset and Queen Charlotte detachments from Prince Rupert, and he is puzzled by the difference between north and south.
“Masset is far busier for calls for service than it is in Queen Charlotte City. Why, I don’t know,” says Staff Sgt. Anderson. Crime is caused by many factors, he says, but alcohol is a major issue in all northern communities.
What’s happening on the islands is not unique.
The crime rate elsewhere in the province appears to be following no obvious pattern either. While all communities on the coast have experienced economic woes, some have seen crime drop, others have seen a sharp increase. In Bella Bella, for example, the crime rate climbed to 352 from 166 between 1992 and 2001, and in Bella Coola it increased to 136 from 85 . In Port Hardy, the rate increased slightly to 138 from 135, but in Port Alice, it dropped, also slightly, to 61 from 67. In several larger communities, such as Prince Rupert, Campbell River and Courtney the crime rate also dropped.
In Old Massett, chief councillor Ron Brown Jr. is well aware that crime is on the rise. As an example, he says, some youths returned to the village from the city, and taught local young people how to hot-wire cars, resulting in a rash of car thefts.
Hard economic times are also responsible, contributing to family breakdown, home loss, suicide and domestic violence, according to Mr. Brown. “In the past 20 years we’ve been legislated out of the fishing industry. Every little aboriginal community has suffered,” he says. “We’ve seen boats chained to the docks. Fishermen are losing their livelihood.”
The attitude of police can also be a problem, says Mr. Brown. He sees too many young police officers on their first posting with a wild-west attitude. “Police should have some kind of First Nations orientation,” he says.
Mr. Brown remembers during Fisheries Guardian program training in 1995, police from Vancouver and North Vancouver had a chance to see a native community in a positive light. “We showed them a different side of First Nations culture, and it was really eye opening for them.”
Programs like Nights Alive and Teen Scene are vital, according to Mr. Brown, but government cuts nearly ended them until the village council stepped in with money. The Wellness Centre and Teen Centre are other positive places in the community which help reduce crime.
Old Massett Village Council is working to create a safe community, says Mr. Brown, and will be working with police on Citizens On Patrol to patrol the village.
But the single most important thing people can do to reduce crime is know where their kids are, says Mr. Brown. “If parents aren’t saying anything, then kids will think no-one cares about them and try to get attention somehow,” he says. He also thinks alcohol is an issue for youth, and wants parents to be more vigilant and police more active about charging older people who buy alcohol for minors.
“Old Massett was known for hospitality, not hostility, and OMVC wants to return to that,” says Mr. Brown.
The statistics show an increase in crime at the north end, but Sgt. Rick Shaw, commanding officer of the Masset RCMP detachment says “it is very difficult to draw a conclusion by using just one indicator.”
Sgt. Shaw says the crime rate in the Masset area may have gone up for two reasons. The first is an actual increase in crime, but the second could be an increase in people’s willingness to report crime when it happens.
“This is certainly an indicator of crime having gone up, but there are a number of other factors,” says Sgt. Shaw. “It may be that people are simply more aware of their rights as victims and are less tolerant of crime than they used to be,” he says.
The increased crime rate could indicate other things besides an increase in actual crimes. “It is entirely possible that people are simply more inclined to report crime today than they were Â…years ago. This may be a result of increased confidence in the justice system or police. Or it may be that people are simply more aware of their rights as victims and are less tolerant of crime than they used to be. There have certainly been efforts in recent years to raise the profiles of certain crimes. Violence in relationships and impaired driving are a couple of examples,” says Sgt. Shaw.
But the crime rate has increased, he says, because the numbers have risen so fast and so steadily.
“Without question, alcohol and drug abuse are the most prevalent contributing factors we see in this community. Alcohol is by far the more prevalent of the two. In fact, statistics show alcohol involvement in crime in our policing area has increased over the past two to three years,” says Sgt. Shaw.
“If we accept that alcohol and drugs are contributing factors, then I think we have to look at what services we have for alcohol and drug counselling and or treatment,” he says. “Youth crime is not a major problem in Masset, but we do have our share. There is certainly plenty of alcohol and drug abuse amongst youth as well. I firmly believe we need more services for youth here.”
However, there is a solution. Getting the community more involved is important, according to Sgt. Shaw. “The entire community has a role to play. The problem we encounter is that people are quick to report crime, but they are often very reluctant to support prosecution or further investigation. We understand this, Masset is so small that most everyone knows everyone else. This makes it very difficult for people to testify against their ‘neighbour’, or in some cases, a loved one. The result is that many who commit crimes never face the consequences, and as a result, never get the help they need to deal with their underlying issues,” says Sgt. Shaw.
“We (RCMP) do strategic planning. In more recent years we’ve tried to get communities more involved in solving the problem,” he says.
The police try to be pro-active about preventing crime with programs like DARE, a drug and alcohol education program aimed at middle school-aged kids.
But it’s not always easy. “Part of the problem in a place like Masset is that they’re strapped for time because they’re busy attending calls,” says Sgt. Anderson.
Restorative justice is an alternative to the conventional court system that focuses on righting the wrong done by a crime, rather than on punishing an offender.
Different restorative justice strategies exist, says Dr. Liz Elliot of Simon Fraser University. Essentially the court system asks what rule or law was broken, who broke it and what they deserve, says Dr. Elliot. Restorative justice, on the other hand, asks what harm was done, what the victims need and whose obligation it is to meet those needs, she says.
Staff Sgt. Anderson says he is “100-percent for restorative justice. Many detachments are going that way, and it’s been effective.”
“The RCMP considers restorative justice an extremely important tool and one that will continue to play an increasing role in law enforcement,” says Sgt. Shaw. “One of the objectives of the RCMP in the North DistrictÂ…is to develop a sustainable alternative/restorative justice program. In Masset, we have identified several volunteers who are going to be trained as facilitators for community justice forums. I am determined to have as many alternative justice programs as possible functioning in the Masset area.”
As well, Sgt Shaw has tried two other initiatives to involve the community. Last February, he invited residents to join Citizens on Patrol, a group of volunteers who patrol the community to deter crime.
“The COPS program is on hold at the moment due to lack of interest. A meeting held some time ago was poorly attended, so it is assumed the community is not ready to volunteer their time for such an initiative,” Sgt. Shaw told the Observer.
However, one group was formed and is active in one problem area. A ‘safer communities initiative’, formed to deal with violence in relationships, has been meeting for a year. This group of professionals-police, health care workers and counsellors- is active, says Sgt. Shaw.
Meanwhile, in the Queen Charlotte, the decreasing crime rate may mask a disturbing trend, according to 30-year resident Anne Mountifield, also a member of the Queen Charlotte management committee.
Ten years ago, when fishing was more active, Queen Charlotte was sometimes rowdier, Ms Mountifield says. “The fleet would come in, the fishermen would get paid, and all hell would break loose for a few days,” she says. “Depending on what was being fished, that might happen two or three times a year.”
“When that happened, many local people were a bit more cautious about where they would walk or spend an evening,” she remembers.
However, between 1992 and 2001 both fishing and logging declined . “Early lay offs in the bush and poor economic times have contributed to crime in the community,” says Ms Mountifield.
Lack of money and work mean frustration, she thinks. “If we on the islands are dependent on primary industry and that is diminishing, then that creates the conditions for frustration and a tendency to be less even tempered.”
Drugs are also an increasing problem, according to Ms Mountifield. ” I have no direct knowledge, but I’ve heard hints from within the community that the amount and variety of drugs available in the community has increased at the south end of the islands.”
And drugs are expensive, Ms Mountifield points out. “They’re costly, so there’s a downward spiral. The first purchase is cheap, but after the addiction it gets more expensive,” she says and this leads to crimes like break and entry.
“We never had home invasions until this year. It was inconceivable. People were very angry this happened,” says Ms Mountifield. Three years ago, she and her husband finally heeded the advice of police and began locking their doors. “We used to brag that no one on the islands needed to lock their doors because there was no need to. I think that’s changed,” she says.
No matter what the trend, there is crime at both ends of the islands. While it is serious, it can be reduced. Community involvement appears to be one key, both through programs such as Citizens on Patrol, and by working towards reducing some key causes, such as alcohol and drug abuse.
And Ottawa apparently agrees. It launched a national crime prevention strategy five years ago to support community based crime prevention efforts. Communities which have a plan for dealing with the root causes of crime, such as drug and alcohol abuse, school problems, or domestic abuse, can apply for money. The Queen Charlotte Islands Women’s Society has received funding for two projects, and more money is available. For more information, www.prevention.gc.ca.