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Youth violence downtown on the upswing, Victoria police say

“Kids getting together, ­coming downtown, being loud — that’s not new. The level of violence, this is new.”
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Victoria police say they're seeing a surge in violence involving young people who gather downtown. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

About 100 youths from across the region have been flocking downtown and wreaking havoc, and there’s concern incidents will escalate, the Victoria Police Department says.

“Kids getting together, ­coming downtown, being loud — that’s not new,” said VicPD ­community engagement officer Bowen Osoko. “The level of violence, this is new.”

In a news release issued Thursday, VicPD said police have been dispatched recently to at least 24 calls for violent incidents, including assaults, fights and vandalism.

Police said the calls included some in a group of about 100 youths jumping on and kicking cars, five or six youths violently attacking a 70-year-old man, and a group harassing an unhoused couple.

Osoko said ages of those involved range from about 14 to 21, with the majority under 18. The youth are making plans to go downtown on social media, he said.

“It’s being organized on ­Snapchat and TikTok,” he said. “Kids will get on the bus and head into town.”

Bonnie Leadbeater, a retired University of ­Victoria ­psychology professor who ­studies adolescent parenting and emerging adulthood, said it’s important not to stereotype youth as troublemakers.

“There’s a huge number of people in this age group who are not doing bad things.”

Leadbeater said teens have suffered during the pandemic. “Also, there hasn’t been the same amount of good things for them to be involved in. The things that lure kids to being good community members. “

Leadbeater said it’s hard to know what prompts upticks in youth violence, especially considering the work done in Victoria and B.C. generally over the last few decades to prevent violence and bullying.

She said there were serious incidents of youth violence in the late 1990s, including the 1997 murder of 14-year-old Reena Virk, who was drowned by two teens after being swarmed and beaten near Craigflower Bridge. “We had a whole phase with this, of youth swarming, and there was some real serious harm done.”

Communities need to find ways to engage young people, she said, and potentially “re-engage some of our early bullying-prevention efforts, violence prevention and the efforts we were making to help parents to parent kids with aggression.”

Leadbeater acknowledged that parenting teens can be challenging, but she said involving kids in activities like sports, music, volunteer work or part-time jobs can make a big difference.

“It’s not easy to parent this age group if they don’t want to be letting you know where they are,” she said. “But a lot of parents do make an effort to drive their kids everywhere and make sure they know who their kids’ friends are.”

Jeff Bray, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, said anyone coming downtown to make trouble isn’t welcome.

“I haven’t heard a lot from businesses directly,” said Bray. “But some of this reported activity is happening in the evening so a lot of our retailers, our office workers are already closed for the day. But nonetheless, it’s very concerning to hear about.

“If you’re coming down to enjoy downtown, we’d love to have you. If you’re coming downtown to cause trouble, you’re not welcome.”

When asked about the incidents, one small downtown business owner said that he hasn’t seen any trouble-making groups of youth, while a worker at a convenience store on the same block said she regularly calls police for large groups of teens that steal from the store and in some cases, get violent.

Osoko said police are working with parent groups and school districts, and every police department in the region is involved in the response.

“Our goal is preventing violence,” Osoko said. “We have the memories of Reena [Virk] and what happened. This is the kind of thing where parents can step up and help prevent that from happening.”

ngrossman@timescolonist.com