Just over a week after Victoria’s chief of police expressed his shock that funding for a late-night patrol program was to be pulled as a budget-cutting measure, city council is working on bringing it back.
Council will debate a motion Thursday to find $500,000 in the city’s budget to provide $220,000 for the Downtown Late Night Task Force, $35,200 for a two-month police foot patrol project and $244,800 for downtown revitalization projects.
The proposal, if passed, means the city’s tax increase this year would be 6.3 per cent, up from the six per cent proposed in its current draft budget.
In an interview Saturday, Chief Del Manak said he’s encouraged by the response.
“I believe there’s been a significant public outcry to this decision,” he said. “It’s encouraging to see they’ve kind of recognized it, and a number of councillors have reached out to me during this time period and let me know that the public have filled their inboxes up.”
Several city councillors have told the Times Colonist they weren’t aware they were cutting the program when they approved a series of budget cuts, proposed by city staff, designed to reduce the tax increase this year.
Included in those recommendations was the $220,000 for the late-night program, which appeared in a staff report as a cut from the business and community relations budget. Those same councillors said they would be open to restoring the funding before the city budget is finalized.
The motion being presented to council on Thursday comes from councillors Krista Loughton and Dave Thompson, who note community safety in Victoria’s downtown remains an issue that requires constant attention.
Manak said because many councillors have indicated to him they weren’t aware they were cutting the program he believes the motion will carry.
He said this kind of frontline policing has real impact.
The late-night program, paid for by the city’s budget and not the police budget, funds four police officers every Friday and Saturday night to patrol the streets and goes between bars, nightclubs and other late-night spots.
Manak said the officers are dealing with known gang members from the Lower Mainland who frequent Victoria’s night spots, and other violent offenders, taking on the task from bar and night club staff.
Officers make their presence known as a deterrent to bad behaviour; they have prevented assaults, stopped potential drunk drivers before they start their cars, regularly intervene where there’s intoxication, disturbances and rival groups starting confrontations, and are looking out for vulnerable people.
Manak said the return on the $220,000 investment is off the charts.
The motion to be debated Thursday will provide one-time funding to the end of this year, but requires the money for it to come from the police operations budget in future years.
Manak said the problem with that is twofold — what will the police have to cut from its budget next year to make room for it and what will Esquimalt’s reaction be as it is responsible for 13.67 per cent of the $69.5-million police budget.
He noted Victoria council has already asked him to cut $1.7 million from this year’s police budget.
“The overall challenge for me as a police chief, is the public have been extremely vocal in that they want public safety to be a priority for municipal government, it’s what everyone from our community is telling us — they’re shouting this at us,” he said. “The reality of it is we are policing a significantly larger population than the tax base.”
Manak noted downtown attracts people from around the region as both the entertainment centre and economic heart of Greater Victoria, not to mention dealing with tourists.
“You’re going to need more officers to support this,” he said, adding it’s an argument for regional policing, which would allow the force to scale up and down, drawing officers from other areas when needed.
He insists the need is there. “The incidents that are playing out in our community are concerning and they’re impacting people’s ability to feel safe.”
As an example, Manak said Victoria officers responded early Friday to a series of violent assaults.
Around 2:30 a.m. a person walking home along Cook Street was assaulted by a stranger. The attacker used the victim’s cane to beat him. A short time later the same person is believed to have attacked someone on Fort Street, breaking the victim’s jaw.
Also in that area, around the same time, a stabbing sent one man to hospital.
A suspect is in custody for the first two assaults and investigators are trying to determine if the third attack is related.
VicPD also ran a retail theft project downtown last week and over the course of a few hours in one retail location undercover police arrested six people who are accused of stealing nearly $5,000 worth of merchandise.
“There are prolific property offenders that are circulating in Greater Victoria that know that the chances of being caught are slim,” Manak said. “The prolific nature of it is disturbing. There’s a level of lawlessness that is happening on our streets and we need elected officials to pay attention.”
Manak said after a lot of talk about creating safer communities, it’s time to do something about it.
“What criminals need, they need more consequences. There has to be a deterrent that if you are a criminal and you’re committing criminal acts, that you’re not just given a slap on the wrist or you’re given a court date and you’re released right back out into the community,” he said. “The premier announced his safer communities action plan in November of last year. Well now it’s April and I’ve yet to see any tangible changes in how the police’s ability to be effective in keeping communities safe has been enhanced.”
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