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'Steady decline' in Vancouver stranger assaults since 2021, police department report reveals

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There has been a "steady decline" in random stranger assaults in Vancouver since 2021, according to an analysis of crime data that was quietly published by police, and which challenges the perception that the attacks have been a mounting public safety issue.

Unprovoked stranger attacks were at the forefront of public safety conversations not just in Vancouver, but across the province in the lead up to the 2022 municipal election, leading Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth to call them the defining public safety issue of the year.

Hard data on their prevalence has always been hard to come by, however, beyond when the Vancouver Police Department said in October 2021 that, in the preceding 12 months, there had been 1,555 stranger attacks in the city, or an average of about four per day.

That number, police said, was a 35 per cent increase compared to 2019 and indicated an "alarming increase" in these random, violent crimes.

A follow-up analysis presented to the Vancouver Police Board on Thursday indicates the trend began reversing not long after that spike was reported. 

"A random sample of assault data from 2021, 2022, and 2023 suggests a steady decline in unprovoked stranger assaults," the document says.

The report does not include any actual figures. CTV News requested the full analysis from the Vancouver Police Department on Thursday, and in response was provided two statistics: That unprovoked stranger assaults went from an average of 4.5 per day in the first half of 2021 to 1.1 per day in the first half of 2023.

"That's definitely moving in the right direction, but there's still more work to do," Sgt. Steve Addison said in an email.

The department did not provide any numbers for 2022, when anecdotal reports of the crimes were causing alarm across the city. In response to a follow-up request, Addison said he would look into sharing that information. 

FOUR PER DAY ONLY 'ESTIMATED' AVERAGE

As concerns over public safety mounted, and police and politicians of all stripes agreed that urgent action was needed, the province ordered an investigation into the issues of repeat offenders and random attacks in May of 2022 and released its final report in October of that year.

"The issue of unprovoked 'stranger attacks' was raised by the VPD in 2022, both in their comments to the media and in communications with the Attorney General," the report said, going on to cite the by-then familiar statistic of four per day.

But the report also clarified that that number was only ever an estimate.

"Based on the findings of 153 stranger assaults within the sample of 515 incidents, the VPD estimated there would be a total of 1,554 stranger assaults, approximately four per day," it said.

This tracks with what CTV News was told on several occasions in the past two years when police refused to provide the number or rate of stranger assaults in the city during a given time frame.

"Due to the number of assaults we investigate, and the way we are required to keep records, we’re unable to provide the total number of stranger assaults that occurred during that period," Addison wrote in an email last year in response to a request for data.

"Many of these cases require significant investigation to determine whether they are, in fact, committed by strangers and whether they are in fact unprovoked."

The report presented at Thursday's Vancouver Police Board meeting indicates the issue is "continuously monitored." 

After the meeting, Chief Adam Palmer was asked why his department has not done more to publicize the fact that stranger assaults have been declining since 2021 – but argued police have tried to publicize the findings, including when he spoke at the Vancouver Board of Trade on Oct. 31.

"There was about, I don't know, 300 or 400 people there," Palmer said. "Our media relations officer has been asked extensively about that by the media, we have put that out to the media, we've put it in a public report today, so nobody's hiding it. We've said it very, very openly."

CTV News has been unable to find any news stories referencing a downward trend in stranger assaults from 2022 or 2023, or any police media releases or social media posts referencing the decline. A police spokesperson declined to provide any examples to back up Palmer’s assertion. 

PANDEMIC BLAMED FOR 2021 SPIKE

While the report presented Thursday is sparse on details, it offers a brief explanation for the apparent downturn in cases – which is attributed to factors seemingly outside of the control of the police department.

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was less pedestrian traffic and fewer guardians or bystanders which can contribute to increased opportunities for violence," the report says.

"This was further exacerbated by mental health pressures triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes resulting in violent interactions between strangers. The return of pre-pandemic daily routines has now led to more pedestrians and increased guardianship within public spaces."

Palmer offered a different explanation on Thursday, crediting the decline on his department's work "arresting people, putting target teams together, going after chronic offenders, dedicating full-time analysts."

He also pointed to the 100 new officers who were added to the department's ranks only this year.

“It just proves that they are so necessary, because those other officers have enabled us to have such great success," Palmer said.

MORE POLICE ON THE STREETS

Hiring those officers, along with 100 nurses, was one of Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim's key campaign promises to address public safety concerns in the lead-up to the 2022 election.

He referenced the four random assaults per day during a mayoral debate in September 2022, at which point the statistic was more than a year old.

Only the policing half of Sim's promise has been fulfilled, and doing so has meant even more funding for the Vancouver Police Department, which has seen its budget balloon over recent years.

According to the draft of next year's civic budget, Vancouver is expected to spend $440 million on policing services in 2024 – up nearly $100 million from the $348 million spent in 2021, when the issue of stranger assault came to the forefront.

Next year's proposed increase in police spending totals just over $30 million, accounting for 2.8 per cent of the 7.6 per cent property tax increase officials are considering for 2024.

For people who own homes and commercial properties, that translates to an additional $37 to $176 per year going toward policing costs.

Asked about the growing police budget, Palmer pointed to "inflation, salary increases, benefit increases" as additional factors, and stressed that his department has steadily accounted for about one-fifth of Vancouver's overall spending.

“The budget of the Vancouver Police Department has maintained the same percentage of the city budget for over 30 years," he said. “It’s always been 20, 21 per cent, which is what it is today.”

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Isabella Zavarise 

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