“It only takes 10 or 20 people to wreak havoc on a tiny town.”Sean Bujtas
Premier David Eby’s new repeat violent offender hubs will land in a handful of rural communities next month, and while they have great theoretical potential, they’ll need to be accompanied by much more to make a difference in small towns and communities, say mayors.
Eby re-announced the hubs in Nanaimo this week. While they will be located in the expected urban centres, including Victoria, Vancouver, Surrey, New Westminster and Abbotsford, there are also sites planned for Kamloops, Kelowna, Cranbrook, Prince George, Williams Lake and Terrace.
The idea behind hubs is to serve as regional coordination centres, bringing together RCMP, Crown prosecutors, corrections officials and existing public safety programs, to identify prolific offenders who tie up police resources and repeatedly victimize local businesses and residents.
The hubs are part of a $25-million three-year Repeat Violent Offending Intervention Initiative. Nobody is quite sure what it means, exactly, but it seems to have at least general support.
“I’m finding mixed reviews,” said Terrace Mayor Sean Bujtas, whose community was in the grips of a crime crisis last year.
“I’m happy that this has been announced and Terrace is a focus, because crime has been a struggle here. The only thing I worry about is they talk a lot about violent offenders, and forget about repeat offenders when it comes to petty crime, theft and break and enters and that kind of thing. I hope that’s incorporated as well.”
It’s not entirely clear what the threshold is for the kind of offender being targeted by the hubs, or to what extent less violent, prolific vandals and thieves will be a priority as well.
“If it’s only focused on violent offenders, I think we’re missing the boat,” said Bujtas, who has not been given any information on the hubs, despite the government announcing one will eventually reside in his community.
“It only takes 10 or 20 people to wreak havoc on a tiny town.”
Not enough, but it has potential
Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog, who has been publicly critical of the province for failing to step up on the issue of mental health and addictions, said he appreciates the help, even if it falls short of addressing the three to four decades of underinvestment by governments.
“I think as far as the short-term solution goes, it’s going to be helpful,” he said. “Is it perfect? No. But you know what? It’s a very good start.”
Kelowna Mayor Tom Dyas said he thinks the potential is “fantastic.”
“It’s been something we’ve been advocating for, so that there’s dedicated teams that deal with repeat prolific offenders,” he said.
“We’ve done a count within our community and we’ve had 20 individuals over the last two years who’ve had almost 3,500 touchpoints with RCMP. And it’s consuming on all of the individuals involved. So for a dedicated team to be able to look at dealing with these individuals is very welcome.”
Change will come quickly, promises premier
Eby said the hubs have hired staff, including new prosecutors, and that they’ll be operational in May.
“They’ll work together to monitor cases involving prolific offenders from investigation through the court process to strict community supervision,” he said. He rejected the notion that communities won’t see actual change on the street for some time, suggesting instead it could come as quickly as next month.
“There is a lot to do,” he said. “We’re not going to solve these problems overnight. But we are going to show progress for British Columbians, the direction that we’re going.”
Mayors in smaller rural communities have long complained about understaffed RCMP, ineffective prosecutions and a sense of injustice in watching the same small group of people, whom almost everyone in the community can identify, repeatedly rob and vandalize locals.
It has even led to so-called vigilante groups in places like Dawson Creek, where some take it upon themselves to retrieve stolen objects.
In Nanaimo, businessman Clint Smith was shot last month trying to recover equipment allegedly stolen from people living in a nearby tent encampment. He showed up at the premier’s announcement in Nanaimo on Wednesday to confront Solicitor General Mike Farnworth and accuse him of too much political rhetoric and not enough action.
Farnworth has cited more than $200 million to recruit more officers to understaffed rural and remote RCMP detachments. In Terrace, for example, the RCMP station is only at 78 per cent capacity, and even with the additional funding, Butjas said he’s not sure where the Mounties will get the newly-trained officers to serve his community.
The police funding, repeat offender hubs, B.C.’s push for federal bail reforms, and an almost $1 billion investment in addiction and mental health services over three years, form the backbone of the NDP crime plan.
Still, there are provincial actions that could be making a big difference in rural communities outside of that as well.
More supports needed
“We need that complex care,” said Dyas, referencing wrap-around mental health, addictions, housing and healthcare supports for homeless and unhoused shelter spaces.
“That hasn’t been brought to this community in the numbers it was initially promised.
“Initially there was 20 beds promised. And at this point in time we have four. It was something brought forth almost over a year ago.
“There’s been discussions of, well we have to find staffing and housing and all this, but in the interim while we don’t get to that level of 20, the community is paying the price.”
There are also many communities who’ve cited spikes in crime, drug use and vandalism around new government-run shelters and modular housing communities, which were designed to get people off the streets but in some cases simply congregated problematic individuals into one spot without proper supports.
Terrace’s damp shelter, funded by the province for extreme weather situations, had been “really troublesome and created a lot of grief for the residents around it,” said Bujtas.
“But it moved two weeks ago and the problems moved with it,” he said. “It really just tells you how much supports these folks need.”
The mayors said they’re willing to give the Eby government’s hub plan a shot, at least for now. But ultimately, it has to produce a real-world lessening of crime on the streets of their communities to be judged a success.
“It just feels like it’s a catch and release system,” said Butjas. “I have a lot of empathy for people with mental health issues and stuff like that, but in the same sense, when they are completely destroying businesses there has to be consequences.”