Victoria police to increase presence in downtown after concerns raised by businesses

The Victoria Police Department is stepping up its presence in downtown amid concerns from businesses about a rise in shoplifting and slow police-response times.

Chief Del Manak announced Monday that he’s pulling in officers to staff a four-month project that will maintain a “consistent, high-visibility presence” in the core.

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Initially, two officers will be assigned to “Project Downtown Connect” for four days a week at a cost of about $55,000, Manak said. The money will come from the department’s overtime budget.

“These officers are going to be given a specific task,” he said. “They’re not just starting and then taking patrol calls. They’re to engage with our small business community in and around the downtown core and make sure we’re touching base with them.”

Manak said the project builds on well-received efforts by his department’s community services division to increase downtown foot patrols during the Christmas season.

“Our communities want to see Victoria police out and about and engaged with citizens on a proactive manner,” he said. “They know that we have to take calls. They know that we’re investigating crime.

“But they actually want to see us at their community events. They want to see us doing foot patrols. They want to meet our officers and they want to know that that is a priority to the Victoria police.”

In addition to increasing police visibility downtown, officers will meet with businesses to talk about security improvements and provide information about how and when to report incidents to police.

The move follows reports that businesses in the LoJo district were considering hiring their own security firm following a rash of thefts.

The Downtown Victoria Business Association told the Times Colonist last month that merchants on Lower Johnson Street were becoming increasingly concerned about the brazen behaviour of shoplifters and the safety risks for their employees.

“The comment that I’ve increasingly been hearing from our members is that ‘we’re on our own out here,’ ” Jeff Bray, the association’s executive director, said at the time. “And that’s very troubling.”

Bray said Monday that the association welcomes Manak’s efforts, given the department’s stretched resources. “We appreciate that they had to go back and figure out how to make this happen and it shows that they’re being responsive to our members.”

Lili Butterfield, owner of The Dancing Lily in LoJo, said businesses continue to deal with thefts, smashed windows and other issues. “It hasn’t really gone away.”

But she’s glad to see the police department respond so quickly after businesses raised concerns.

“I’m personally excited to see what happens,” she said. “Of course, it’s a pilot project, so hopefully we can give them enough feedback to see what works and keep it going.”

Butterfield added that it’s too soon to say whether businesses will band together to hire additional security as well.

“Obviously, we’ll continue to look at options just in case it doesn’t work out,” she said.

“Any presence is good presence, so whether that comes from the police or private security, I think just having someone checking in on the businesses downtown and being present during the day is a good thing.”

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps praised Manak’s efforts. “He’s pulled together resources from every nook and cranny to do this four-month Downtown Connect project and it really is aimed at: ‘Can we get police out there on the beat so that the stealing stops?’ ”

Helps said the project will be reviewed after four months to see whether it prevented shoplifting and reduced the number of calls to police.

“So maybe this front-line deployment is something that could be considered in the longer term if it has the impact,” she said.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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