Victoria’s bylaw officers continue to be threatened, chased and intimidated while monitoring homeless encampments, and the city no longer allows officers to visit certain parks unless accompanied by police, city council was told Thursday.
Victoria Police Chief Del Manak, who was seeking about $76,000 to extend a regular camp patrol to the end of March, made clear that he still considers the parks unsafe.
“There continue to be weapons,” he said. “There continue to be people that are living in fear. There’s a level of violence and safety is compromised.
“This requires a regular review — something that has to be done every single day. And I can tell you that we’ve had our bylaw officers who have been verbally assaulted, threatened, chased.”
He cited an incident Thursday morning at Cecelia Ravine Park in the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood where two bylaw officers were threatened with a shovel and “had to take refuge in their vehicle while the Victoria Police Department responded.” Once police arrived, officers disarmed the man at gunpoint, the department said.
On Wednesday, officers seized a baseball bat with nails and razor blades attached from an abandoned tent in a parking lot encampment next to Royal Athletic Park. “These are the types of weapons that we are seeing where people are feeling they need to protect themselves from other individuals,” he said.
Manak, who was requesting money to deploy two officers for four hours every day to assist bylaw staff, at one point asked council: “What’s a life worth to you? Or a city worker getting injured and seriously assaulted?”
Shannon Perkins, manager of bylaw services, confirmed there are a number of parks and public spaces that bylaw officers no longer visit without police.
“Right now, we’re at four parks,” she said. “We evaluate the situation daily, and if we can attend there without police, we do. But this has been an ongoing concern, since the sheltering numbers have grown in the parks.”
She noted that if bylaw officers are unable to visit, there is a “cascading effect” on other staff in the parks or public works departments who rely on the presence of bylaw officers.
City manager Jocelyn Jenkyns said the city views the situation as a health-and-safety issue. “We are not going to put our employees at risk or in potentially very dangerous situations,” she said. “We believe that police support is vital for bylaw to be able to do their job.”
Jenkyns said that if council declined to approve the money, the city would have to look at other ways for bylaw officers to do their jobs. “But they would not be attending in these potentially dangerous situations.”
Council eventually approved the spending in an 8-1 vote, but a number of councillors raised concerns about ongoing increases to the police budget.
“According to VicPD, this level of spending is not resulting in increased safety or community wellness,” Coun. Sarah Potts said. “So we do need to be honest about that and consider what isn’t being resourced, and why this is happening and what are some alternatives.”
Coun. Ben Isitt, who was alone in opposing a dedicated camp patrol, said that, in his experience, people without homes require interventions by social service agencies and social workers rather than law enforcement.
“So having bylaw staff being able to call on VicPD when necessary, rather than as a matter of routine, I think is preferable, in the context of finite fiscal resources,” he said.
Coun. Stephen Andrew, however, voiced concern that refusing Manak’s request would result in someone getting hurt or the city ceding control of the parks to criminals that prey on people without homes. “I will be supporting this, and I would encourage all of my fellow councillors to do the same,” he said.