Disrupting the Peace: Break-ins demoralize FSJ business owners

Written By Spencer Hall, Special to Northern Beat

Spencer Hall is an investigative reporter with Energeticcity.ca. Disrupting the Peace is a series on crime in northeast B.C. This is an excerpt of part two.

“The burden of running and operating a business right now is overwhelming.”

–Kathleen Connolly

Business owners frustrated with repeated break-ins say property crime has never been worse in Fort St. John, while police stats show crime was higher before the pandemic. The disconnect between perception and reality may have a simple explanation – many business owners say they’ve stopped calling police after every incident because the police don’t have the resources to follow up and the city charges citizens who call in too many times.

“There just doesn’t appear to be enough time to deal with the petty theft stuff, even though we’re getting into well over 100,000 bucks in losses,” said Rui Miranda, whose heating contracting company, D Bauer Mechanical, has been hit by property crime 17 times since September.

“We’re getting into well over 100,000 bucks in losses.”

Rui Miranda

Only three of those incidents have file numbers because Miranda hasn’t reported the other fourteen cases to RCMP. The detachment doesn’t have the capacity to investigate the incidents, he said.

A local pet food and supply store has a similar story. It’s been broken into 25 times over the past 11 years, according to a letter to Fort St. John council. After the fifth break in to ZooFood in a two-week period, the owner, identified only as Emily, reportedly received a letter indicating she would be charged a fee if the RCMP were called to her business again.

“That’s when we stopped getting the police involved. We still get broken into. We just don’t let our alarm system call the police,” the business owner wrote.

Fort St. John has a Nuisance Abatement and Cost Recovery Bylaw that can be used to issue a ticket to the owner or occupier of a property that has “repeatedly had calls for service without action to address them,” said Ryan Harvey, communications manager with the city, who said he would look into the situation.

“We still get broken into. We just don’t let our alarm system call the police.”

Pet store owner

Miranda said he thinks the city is averaging about 20 to 30 incidents per day, whereas RCMP statistics from January to June 2023 indicate 69 reported break-ins to businesses within city limits and eight break-ins to surrounding rural businesses.

Property offences ‘escalated’ but crime has been higher

Fort St. John RCMP detachment commander Anthony Hanson said while property incidents have “certainly escalated” over the last six to 12 months, general crime levels in Fort St. John are actually below the highs the city saw before the pandemic.

“We saw a decrease throughout COVID, and now, well, COVID is over, and things are returning to what I would classify as a more normal crime rate for Fort St. John,” Hanson saidadding that the city has historically had fairly high levels of property and violent crime.

In 2022, there were 60 break and enters to businesses in the municipal area, compared to 57 in 2018 and 89 in 2015.

Hanson said other business owners have told him they don’t report many of their thefts, which prevents the RCMP from investigating and keeps the incidents out of the crime statistics, which affects funding.

“If we don’t know about it, there is no statistical data on it,” Hanson said, adding that police services funding is tied to the crime data.

‘That’s a bad road to go down’

While the volume of crime in Fort St. John may not have changed much on paper, the public’s attitude on social media has shifted dramatically, said Hanson.

“People are angry, or they’re becoming frustrated much more quickly. They want instant solutions, and they’re not willing to accept that some things take time. You can’t charge and convict somebody in three days—and you certainly can’t do it fairly,” Hanson stated.

“People are angry, or they’re becoming frustrated much more quickly.”

Anthony Hanson

He said everyone living in Canada has rights and voiced his concern that with the frustration being felt by residents, those inherent rights may be getting forgotten.

“The same rights apply to all of us. We, as citizens, don’t get to choose who we think should have more rights than others. That’s a bad road to go down.”

Business owners frustrated and defeated

Many local business owners are feeling frustrated and defeated after enduring multiple break-ins with no support from local, provincial or federal governments, said Kathleen Connolly, executive director of the Fort St. John & District Chamber of Commerce.

Some business owners don’t feel safe in their place of business and others, particularly small ones, are reaching their limit and shutting their doors, Connolly said.

Dr. Christopher Herriot, the owner of North Peace Optometry Clinic, said in a letter to Fort St. John council that he’s taken measures to protect his staff and business, including installing security cameras, increased lighting, secure locks, and alarm systems.

“Seeing other businesses being broken into is disheartening. It is challenging to be an entrepreneur, and being a victim of a crime is a major setback. For myself, feelings of fear and uncertainty will discourage my passion for growth and developing new business opportunities,” he said.

“Seeing other businesses being broken into is disheartening.”

Christopher Herriot

Connolly said businesses feel like they need to be supported in a more meaningful way by governments.

“That doesn’t mean replace my window because it’s been broken. It means we need to get to the root cause of this issue and create strategies that are actually creating safe communities,” Connolly continued.

Businesses experiencing the financial impacts of repeated property crime offences are also having to contend with their insurance costs increasing if they utilize their coverage to repair damages or cover their losses.

“One of the frustrating things that we’ve heard from officials before is ‘yeah, crime happens. Just use your insurance,’ which is a really tone-deaf answer to business owners who can’t afford an increase in insurance, let alone afford $3,000 for a new window that’s getting broken every other month,” Connolly said.

Feeling ‘unsafe’ downtown

She said these increased costs, plus the cost of hiring and generally feeling unsafe in the downtown core, are causing businesses to shorten their hours.

In a letter to Fort St. John council, the manager of Carter’s Jewellers, Karleen Jones, spoke about finding a man hiding behind a dumpster with meat cleavers, knives and “other paraphernalia” while she was returning to work from her lunch break.

“I often wonder as we go to leave if someone will be waiting at our back door or hiding behind our dumpster again. In a community that is putting so much effort into bringing people back to our downtown, we cannot ensure that shoppers aren’t harassed or our businesses were broken into,” she wrote.

“I often wonder as we go to leave if someone will be waiting at our back door.”

Karleen Jones

Another local business owner, Tyler Soule of Peace Country Rentals, said he no longer speaks about the safety of the city.

“[Peace Country Rentals] has always had a certain amount of theft, which comes with every business operation, but in the last 2 years, we have seen theft, both attempted and acted upon, double in both frequency and value,” Soule said.

“We have cameras, we have security patrols, and now we are going to spend $50,000 on GPS devices,” he added.

“In the last 2 years, we have seen theft … double in both frequency and value.”

Tyler Soule

The Chamber has recommended safety improvements to council, including increased lighting in business areas, bolstering RCMP patrols, and reinstating police bike patrols.

The RCMP also need adequate resources, because there could be dire consequences if they don’t, said Connolly, adding some owners told her they’ve started keeping a weapon at their business.

“That tells me that not only is an owner at risk but now somebody who may be committing, it could even be petty theft, their lives could be affected in a really big way,” Connolly said.

Conversations prompt community safety trade show

In April, members of the Fort St. John business community spoke with city council detailing their experiences with property crime and how it’s impacted their businesses.

These conversations helped prompt the city to host a “community safety open house and trade show,” which drew more than 100 citizens, along with the local Chamber of Commerce, city staff and councillors, Northern Health, the RCMP,  Urban Systems, and the Fort St. John Salvation Army.

“The overall consensus from participants and representatives from those agencies was that there was certainly a fair bit of anger, but also fairly constructive conversations about what could happen or what needs to happen,” said Fort St. John’s Harvey.

One solution suggested by a local business was to establish a process for residents to submit photos and share their experiences with property crime. Another suggestion was to bring back the Citizens on Patrol program to assist the RCMP.

COPS program, a “healthy outlet” for residents

The RCMP can’t be everywhere at once and the COPS programs have shown some successes in other locations, said Hanson.

“They could be an extra set of eyes, and that is their only role. So it’s just making sure that boundaries are set for their safety and the safety of the public,” he said.

Hanson said the COPS program would actively engage residents and allow them to assist RCMP in a legitimate way.

“There’s a lot of public interest in [property crime] and not all of it is healthy. We’re trying to provide people with a healthy outlet where they can assist their community and the police and remain on the correct side of legislation,” Hanson said.

“There’s a lot of public interest in [property crime] and not all of it is healthy.”

Anthony Hanson

He added that if a group similar to Citizens Take Action (CTA) were to start in Fort St. John, it would not have support from the detachment.

CTA is a vigilante group based in Dawson Creek that said they had “lost confidence in our local RCMP detachment’s ability to address the acute rise in crime.” 

Any actions that are outside the purview of the Criminal Code and legislation of the province or the country are not supported by the RCMP, Hanson said.

“Two wrongs do not make a right. If you want to assist us effectively, providing information in the correct manner or joining Citizens on Patrol would be an excellent way,” Hanson said.

The Canadian justice system was developed from English common law over a thousand years to ensure the fairest application of justice toward the accused, he said.

“We have a professionalized police service, the Crown Prosecution legal service, and appointed judges for a reason. That’s why they make arm’s length decisions because they’re not emotionally involved,” he explained.

“It’s not about revenge or retribution—it’s about justice, public safety, and proportionality.”

If residents are dissatisfied with the services they receive from public institutions, they should contact their MLA or MP, Hanson said.

Multi-faceted issues require muti-faceted solutions

When it comes to property crime, Harvey said there won’t be just one magic solution. Instead, it will take small incremental changes across multiple agencies.

“There’s no overnight cure. We’re talking about changes to provincial and federal policies, local support, social services, all of those pieces that have to come together to make these incremental changes to help with these challenges,” Harvey explained.

“There’s no overnight cure.”

Ryan Harvey

The City of Fort St. John is looking at developing its own support programs and is gathering resident feedback on two initiatives to improve housing and addiction support.

The Housing First and Situation Table programs have been established in other communities across Canada to provide support services to people with mental health, addictions, homelessness and justice system issues.

The city will also be engaging with the province in the fall at the annual Union of BC Municipalities convention and has requested a meeting with the minister of public safety to discuss the challenges the city is facing.

Municipalities across B.C. are facing similar challenges, Harvey said.

According to a ministry spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office, the province is trying to link non-violent repeat offenders with access to multiple healthcare and community supports, including expanded peer-assisted care teams, more funding for the B.C. brain injury alliance, more scalable addiction care, and additional community transition teams to connect former inmates with mental health and substance use supports as they transition back into the community.

‘If the criminal is savvy … they’ll generally find a way’

The detachment is working with the Fort St. John Chamber of Commerce to give business owners tips on how to “harden” their businesses, such as installing video cameras and alarms to help provide evidence should the victim experience additional property-related offences.

“But the general rule of thumb is that if the criminal is savvy, experienced, and wants it badly enough, they’ll generally find a way,” Hanson said in an earlier interview.

“We’ve had break and enters … where they’ve gone through walls.”

The province recently approved a multi-year investment of $230 million dollars to the RCMP’s base funding to hire more officers under B.C.’s Safer Communities plan.

Hanson is in the process of writing a business case to access some of that funding to set up a regional crime reduction unit aimed at addressing the prolific trans-jurisdictional property crime occurring in the Peace and over the Alberta border. 

“We’ve had break and enters … where they’ve gone through walls.”

Anthony Hanson

The bulk of property crime offences in the region are professional-level crimes involving theft of expensive equipment from industrial and commercial business, Hanson stated in a previous interview. “When you’re stealing tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of industrial equipment, you need to be connected to people that you can actually sell that back to and recoup profit from.”

After a recent string of more serious break and enters earlier this year, 75 per cent were traced back to one individual who’s now in custody. “And that was just over a several-month period,” Hanson said.

Professional criminals are distinct from people with severe substance use committing petty property crime, said Hanson. 

The burden is ‘overwhelming’

One is a “prolific offender,” the other is a chronic offender, he said.

“A chronic offender is generally someone who is unhoused that has a lot of contact with the police due to their addiction. What that historically meant was they’re intoxicated, they can’t care for themselves, or they’re screaming and yelling in a public place, or scaring people,” Hanson explained.

In Fort St. John, it’s the prolific offenders, not chronic offenders, who are committing a majority of property crime offences, Hanson said.

Regardless of who is doing the crime, the effect on business owners is the same. It’s grinding them down and demoralizing them.

“The burden of running and operating a business right now is overwhelming,” said the Chamber’s Connolly. “I think you add in the fact that maybe you don’t feel safe, or your employees don’t feel safe, and you can’t be certain that there’s not going to be a new risk in your business [and] I think they’re just defeated.”

Read part one of Disrupting the Peace, the three-part series on crime in the northeast at Energeticcity.ca.