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Comment: Law alone won’t solve downtown social issues

As chief of the Victoria Police Department, I have a good understanding of how unique we are compared to many other police departments.

As chief of the Victoria Police Department, I have a good understanding of how unique we are compared to many other police departments.

The provincial seat of power is here, which brings with it weekly and often daily demonstrations, as well as the security threats and concerns associated with government. Our myriad festivals, parades and gatherings, which make our community such a wonderful place to live, bring thousands to celebrate.

Our vibrant downtown attracts visitors and residents alike from around the world and across the Capital Regional District to shop, play and party. All these events require more resources, planning and staffing than for most other police departments, but what often eclipses all these events are the social issues we see on our streets.

Crime statistics show that Victoria is a safe community; in fact, one of Canada’s safest. However, when people don’t “feel” safe, then we need to look deeper. Social-disorder issues, such as panhandling, are often looked at as crime issues when, in fact, they are not. Criticism is then levelled at the police for not doing our jobs.

Victoria, for all its beauty and compassion, has a disproportionately large homeless population, exacerbated by poverty, substance abuse and mental-health issues. To be clear, none of these issues are illegal, let alone criminal. Most of these unfortunate individuals need the medical community, not the legal one.

I often hear that the police should not be dealing with these issues and to leave them alone. I’ve also heard that the police are not doing enough to rid our streets of such “undesirables.” To both sides, I say no. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has the same guarantees and responsibilities for all of us, whether we pay taxes or not, whether we are housed or not. Everyone has the right to be on our streets, provided they do so within the laws.

Conversely, parents also have the right to walk in any of our beautiful parks without worrying their children might be pricked by a needle or accosted by someone in a mental-health crisis.

I am proud of Victoria’s police officers and the herculean, and sometimes impossible, tasks they do on our behalf. Every morning, officers wake up between 80 and 300 people, depending on the time of year, and direct them to the appropriate shelters. They do so firmly, but with compassion, even when their efforts are often not appreciated.

We have substantially increased our visibility in the downtown core and have reached out to new partners. The social problems we see on our streets cannot be solved with the rule of law alone. We need a balanced approach that gives us the resources we need to carry out our jobs, while the various social and health agencies need to be properly funded to serve the needs of those on our streets.

I’ve often said that if the only tool in our toolkit is a hammer, then every issue looks like a nail. The social issues we face are far too complex for one easy solution.

We need a number of tools, and partners willing to work together to find legal and appropriate solutions. Your Victoria Police Department is committed to working toward that end. 

Frank Elsner is chief of the Victoria Police Department.

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