Do you feel safe in Downtown Vancouver? Complaints of stranger assaults, violent shoplifting prompt roundtable discussions
Vancouver's police department and city council say they're hearing time and time again from residents and business owners who feel unsafe in Downtown Vancouver, particularly when it comes to instances of violent shoplifting and assaults by strangers.
Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Steve Addison says police are often dealing with reports of “stranger assaults” multiple times per day.
“Any day of the week, if you ask me, I can probably give you one or two or three different stories of somebody who’s been assaulted by a stranger or a person they didn’t know,” Addison told CTV News Vancouver on Wednesday.
According to the VPD, on average, four people are targeted in unprovoked assaults in Vancouver each day.
Addison detailed several incidents that occurred in the last few days, including:
- Friday night: Officers were called to a hotel on Burrard Street after a family staying there was attacked with a rock. Another tenant staying on the same floor had been on a “drug binge,” which resulted in an altercation in the hallway. The family was then assaulted with a rock. The incident is still under investigation.
- Saturday night: A group of international students were hanging around Science World when another group of young people approached and “for no apparent reason at all” started spraying the first group with bear spray. The incident is still under investigation.
- Sunday Night: A man in his 20s was leaving the Granville SkyTrain station when there was “some kind” of altercation with another group of men. The altercation resulted in the man being “sucker punched” and then hit his head on the sidewalk. The man is now in hospital with “serious head trauma.”
- Monday night: A 20-year-old international student was walking near the intersection of Granville and Georgia streets when, “for some unknown reason,” a woman approached and pushed her lit cigarette into the man’s neck. A witness followed the suspect and called police, and the suspect was arrested.
The spate of assaults follows detailed accounts from business owners about crime downtown.
When it comes to incidents of violent shoplifting (shoplifting with a weapon and shoplifting where violence is involved), 2021 is on pace to see a 43 per cent increase over 2020, and a 700 per cent increase over 2019, according to information presented at the Vancouver Police Board meeting last Thursday.
“We’re hearing from people who live, work and own businesses in the downtown core that they’re frustrated, that they need help,” Addison said. “We’re trying to be part of the solution.”
VPD has already increased the focus of patrols on key trouble spots, such as Davie and Granville streets.
CTV News spoke with people on the streets of the West End who say there’s a sense of unease downtown.
A 27-year-old woman said she was yelled at and harassed by a stranger in a West End park over summer.
“(The man) made me feel very uncomfortable,” she said. “I ended up buying a little knife just in case I was walking home and someone was giving me a hard time.”
Elliot Ebel, who works downtown, said he exercises “heightened awareness.”
“I’ve seen more violence; I’ve seen more homelessness,” Ebel said. “You’re a little bit more wary around what’s happening in the darker corners of the city.”
But the statistics don’t show a dramatic increase in incidents. According to figures from VPD, there were 3,490 assaults from January to September of 2020, compared to 3,508 during the same period in 2021.
“They only show part of the story and we know these crimes that we’re talking about are hugely underreported,” Addison said, adding that in many cases, people are taking to social media to describe their experiences.
“We’re now deploying police officers to check in with those people to offer support, to investigate, to see if they want to make a police report,” he said.
Vancouver City Council is also looking for tangible solutions. Earlier this month, council passed a public safety motion put forward by Coun. Melissa DeGenova.
“We can’t keep pointing fingers, we can’t wash our hands of our responsibility,” DeGenova said. “Every single person should feel safe in the City of Vancouver.”
The motion calls for council staff to host roundtable discussions with organizations that are “touched by this issue,” a group that includes Business Improvement Associations, VPD, BC Housing and the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions.
DeGenova said council needs to take a more proactive approach, particularly after the city advocated for the province to purchase hotels like the Howard Johnson on Granville Street to provide temporary housing through the pandemic.
“We can’t pick up a Strathcona Park encampment, move it into the middle of downtown Vancouver and pat ourselves on the back and say we’ve done a great job here,” DeGenova said.
The roundtable discussions will be taking place through November, with council staff set to submit a report with recommendation in December.