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Stranger assaults had plummeted months before Vancouver's 2022 election. Why didn't anyone know?

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Newly released data suggests the number of random stranger attacks in Vancouver was plummeting months before the 2022 election, a reversal of an alarming trend that had contributed to significant public safety concerns among voters.

But the encouraging data would remain unknown to the public – and apparently to police and politicians as well – for another full year.

That these alarming, unprovoked assaults had been on a steady decline since 2021 has only now come to light, some 13 months after Mayor Ken Sim and his ABC party swept into office on promises to improve public safety by boosting the police budget and hiring 100 new officers.

Data shared for the first time this week by the Vancouver Police Department reveals that the average number of stranger attacks recorded in the city had fallen from 4.5 per day in the first half of 2021 down to 1.8 per day in the first half of 2022 – a decrease of 60 per cent.

The average fell further, to 1.1 per day, in the first half of 2023, while the hiring of those new officers was just getting underway.

So why didn't anyone in law enforcement know the situation was improving before voters headed to the polls – or care to check?

CTV News asked police spokesperson Sgt. Steve Addison why the department never produced updated data on stranger attacks in 2022, given the widespread public interest in the problem, but he declined to answer.

Instead, Addison called the attacks themselves "totally unacceptable."

"Attempts to dismiss these cases is an insult to everyone who has been impacted by random violence," he wrote in an email.

Details of the declining instances of stranger attacks were only shared after multiple requests by CTV News, which began asking questions after noticing a line, on page 65 of a 90-page meeting package that went before the Vancouver Police Board this week, that read: "Follow-up analysis suggests that there has been a steady decline in unprovoked stranger assaults since 2021."

The analysis challenges what had become a common perception among Vancouver residents that random attacks either surged or remained consistently high last year.

PREVIOUS DATA SPARKS FRENZY

Stranger attacks were at the forefront of public safety conversations in the lead-up to the election, after police revealed 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 would be repeated all throughout 2022, without any follow-up from law enforcement, and B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth deemed stranger attacks the defining public safety issue of the year in December.

Sim shared the dated statistic repeatedly during his campaign, telling a Tyee reporter in September 2022 – when the figure was already a year old – that four random attacks were still happening "every single day" in the city.

There is no indication they were.

The mayor declined an interview request with CTV News to discuss stranger attacks and the lack of up-to-date data available during his campaign.

In a written statement, issued Friday evening after deadline, Sim called public safety a "top priority" for his party and thanked police for their work. Asked whether he believes updated information on stranger attacks should have been released before the election, he declined to comment, pointing to his position as chair of the Vancouver Police Board.

"I do not feel it would be appropriate to comment on the timing of their data releases," he wrote.

Notably, Sim was the first mayoral candidate ever endorsed by the Vancouver Police Union, which cited his promises to hire more officers and to bring back the controversial school liaison officer program. 

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Public Safety told CTV News that Farnworth was unavailable for an interview either. Asked whether the minister was ever made aware that stranger attacks were actually declining, Farnworth issued a statement celebrating the positive trend.

"The decrease in random assaults in one of the largest municipalities in our province is a promising sign of the collective efforts police, government and other partners are taking to ensure the safety of British Columbians," he said.

The Vancouver Police Department's analysis actually credits the decline on factors seemingly outside of the department’s control.

"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."

LACK OF PROACTIVE DATA-SHARING ‘DISTURBING’

The police department’s decision not to proactively compile or release updated information the year after reporting an alarming increase in stranger attacks in 2021 has been described as "disturbing" and "ridiculous" by experts.

One is Benjamin Perrin, a law professor at the University of British Columbia whose book, “Indictment: The Criminal Justice System on Trial,” argues spending on policing is an ineffective and overpriced solution to the social issues that contribute to random attacks and so-called repeat offenders.

"Increasing the number of police officers does not reduce crime, full stop," he said Friday.

But hiring more police has been a priority for the governing ABC party, which was elected after a campaign that focused on the issue of deteriorating public safety, and promised to make the city safe again by “fully funding" the Vancouver Police Department.

"There supposedly was a skyrocketing number of stranger attacks right around the time when the police budget and the election were happening in Vancouver," Perrin said. "What we now know – what the VPD has made public – is that, in fact, these so-called stranger attacks have been declining." 

"That's really disturbing," he added. "Like, let's get the facts straight."

CTV News requested updated data on stranger attacks from police multiple times in 2022, given the growing public concern around the issue, but was told it wasn't possible to provide the information. 

FEAR-MONGERING WITHOUT FOLLOW-UP?

Martin Andresen, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, questioned what the lack of follow-up data after 2021 suggests about the department’s motives and commitment to transparency.

Andresen said he suspects police "decided to take advantage" of the spike in random attacks recorded during the pandemic. 

"That was a way to fear-monger to the public, make them scared so that they would want to make sure that the police budget stayed on track and got expanded. And now they have suddenly discovered that these crimes have decreased by 77 per cent?" he said. 

"I think it's absolutely ridiculous that they are putting this out now." 

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. About $7.8 million is earmarked for the new officers.

Andresen also described the stranger assault data that's been provided as fundamentally lacking, noting it only comes from a random sample of six months’ worth of files per year.

"In order to actually understand this trend, we need to look at all of the data," he added. "This whole thing is incredibly dodgy.”

Coun. Christine Boyle, who was re-elected in 2022 and has consistently questioned increases to the police budget, as well as the decision to hire 100 new officers, would also like to see a more complete picture of the issue.

"If the sharp decrease happened before this new council hired additional police officers, we should be looking at what other factors led to such a significant and positive decline in stranger attacks,” she said.

"This decrease is good news. I’m surprised that it didn’t come up during the election, when we were having big and important public discussions about public safety. But now that this information is public, what can we learn from it to keep improving community safety across Vancouver?"

POLICE DISPUTE LACK OF OPENNESS

After Thursday's Vancouver Police Board 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. Palmer argued police have tried to publicize the findings, including when he spoke at the Vancouver Board of Trade a few weeks prior, on Oct. 31.

"There was about, I don't know, 300 or 400 people there," he 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 locate any news reports from 2022 or 2023 – prior to this week – that reference a steady decline in stranger assaults.

Asked for examples to back up Palmer's assertion, a police spokesperson pointed to a social media post from Deputy Chief Howard Chow from March 2023 that said, "We're starting to see the frequency of stranger attacks decrease." 

A previous report that went before the police board in September also referenced the same "follow-up analysis" on stranger attacks, but, like the one presented Thursday, did not contain any actual data.

"While we’ve spoken for months about the downward trend in unprovoked attacks, we are always careful not to jump to conclusions or read too much into short-term fluctuations in crime trends," Addison said in a statement Friday.

Asked when police first learned stranger assaults were trending downward, Addison only responded that the department's "detailed analysis" was "completed this month by professionals in our Planning Research and Audit Section."

Beyond the explanations offered in that analysis, Palmer credited the steep decline in stranger attacks 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.

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Isabella Zavarise

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