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Police targeting wrong offences

We like to think of Victoria as a visitor-friendly community. From beautiful scenery to great restaurants to wonderful shopping, our city has much to offer. But in the last year or two, a different kind of experience has arrived.

We like to think of Victoria as a visitor-friendly community. From beautiful scenery to great restaurants to wonderful shopping, our city has much to offer.

But in the last year or two, a different kind of experience has arrived. Head downtown these days and you might find yourself meeting with a police officer.

The number of people fined for misdemeanours across the capital region has skyrocketed. Prior to 2004, police handed out about 8,000 traffic tickets annually.

By 2006, the latest year for which statistics are available, the total had jumped to 22,000. While tourists from out of town are included, that's still a huge number. Pedestrians have also been roped in. The Greater Victoria Integrated Road Safety Unit embarked on a campaign to stamp out jaywalking earlier this year, with $109 tickets issued in the city centre to anyone crossing mid-street, or against Do Not Walk lights.

According to authorities, the objective is to reduce accidents. And certainly there have been some notable successes.

During a two-week crackdown on the Malahat, speeding was greatly reduced and there were no major collisions. Given the grim record of death and destruction on that stretch of the Island Highway, such a targeted offensive makes sense.

But the blitz isn't confined to danger spots. Quiet country lanes in Saanich are now the scene of speed traps.

And the ramp-up goes well beyond stamping out truly dangerous behaviour, like drunk driving or speeding in school zones.

Pushed for a justification, the province's solicitor general claimed collisions have been reduced by nine per cent. That argument hangs by the thinnest of threads.

Traffic accidents are indeed down, but the drop has occurred throughout B.C., and indeed in every region of Canada. Road deaths and injuries peaked in the late 1970s, when the baby boom reached driving age. They've been falling ever since. The nine per cent reduction is part of that trend.

A rather different explanation suggests itself. Municipalities are allowed to keep the revenue from traffic fines. In 2006, the windfall amounted to nearly $2 million in the capital region alone. That's quite an incentive to write more tickets.

There's a deeper issue. Law enforcement agencies are only effective when they have community support. Consider that it's been more than a year since real estate agent Lindsay Buziak was murdered in Gordon Head. Police work, on its own, has not identified the killer. If the case is to be solved, it seems likely public assistance will be needed. In Vancouver, where a gang war is under way, authorities have acknowledged they desperately need witnesses to come forward.

But if people believe policing is targeting the wrong offences -- people who roll through stop signs in their cars, for example, rather than those who break into cars repeatedly, trust suffers. And it's not as if our law enforcement agencies are in good standing right now. One scandal after another has rocked public confidence.

Let's get down to basics. Police are hired to protect us and address public priorities, which are often linked to safety in our homes and daily lives. B.C. has one of the worst records in Canada for home break-ins and a high rate of car thefts. Those are issues that must be high on the police agenda.

Road safety is important.

But the public needs to see equal or greater activity on the crimes that threaten our basic sense of security. Both the community and the police reputation will be well served when that emphasis becomes evident.