On the streets

RCMP Const. James Grandy, who serves as the Penticton detachment’s spokesman and mental health intervention co-ordinator, speaks to a distraught person outside Burdock House in May 2021.

Penticton’s mayor was handcuffed Thursday by a majority of city councillors who rejected his proposal to hire five more RCMP officers as soon as possible.

City politicians shot down the idea by a 4-3 vote with Couns. Julius Bloomfield, James Miller, Katie Robinson and Campbell Watt opposed.

The group then voted unanimously to immediately request two more Mounties from the police force and hire a consultant to make recommendations to improve public safety in the city with an eye to adopting any such measures as part of 2022 budget deliberations later this year.

The extraordinary meeting was called by Mayor John Vassilaki in response to a private citizen’s proposal and came just two days after new data from Statistics Canada showed Penticton’s crime severity index for 2020 was 10th highest out of 325 communities across the country with populations over 10,000.

“I’ll put it frankly: We’ve got to get some backbone and do what’s right for the community and the safety of people in the community,” said Vassilaki, who suggested requesting the five new officers now and figuring how to pay for them at budget time, possibly through reserves or new taxation.

The mayor went on to declare Penticton’s criminal element “is becoming uncontrollable” and there’s a risk of “people becoming frustrated and taking matters in their own hand.”

Noting her 14 consecutive years in office, Coun. Judy Sentes said she’s “respectful” of the budget process, “but I also recognize there are extenuating circumstances that constitute an emergency.”

“I do believe the time has come” to hire more officers, said Sentes. “We can’t keep deferring this.”

The plan’s only other supporter, Coun. Frank Regehr, agreed that desperate times call for desperate measures.

“If we can agree it’s an emergency, does that substantiate making a decision outside the normal budget process?” asked Regehr. “I’m prepared to say that it is.”

But opponents disagreed, most notably Bloomfield, who cited an overall decrease in property crime in the first quarter of 2021 versus 2020

“When we look at the data, I don’t see the emergency,” said Bloomfield, who also noted that with an expected waiting time of eight to 16 months for new officers, ordering them now instead of after budget deliberations “is not going to make that much difference.”

Watt, who was first to suggest hiring a consultant to quantify how many more officers Penticton needs, said safeguarding the public purse is equally as important as public safety.

“This will be a big tax hit to our taxpayers,” said Watt.

Robinson estimated the cost of five new Mounties and required support staff at $1.5 million annually, equivalent to a “3%-plus” tax hike.

“Clearly we need more officers and I’m very cognizant of the stress factor that our members are experiencing right now and I wholeheartedly agree that we need more officers,” said Robinson.

“The problem is we need to look at this in a more wholistic view with the entire budget in front of us to make a responsible decision.”

Miller, also managing editor of The Herald, argued the money spent on five new Mounties could be equally well-spent elsewhere and could address issues that may be arising from the proliferation of social housing projects.

“Before we open up $1 million for policing, in the interest of public safety, are we better off hiring $1-million worth of mental health workers? More auxiliary police? Are there proactive things we could do?” asked Miller.

Penticton RCMP Supt. Brian Hunter, who attended the meeting to answer questions, said there’s nothing more he can do with the resources available to him, having already collapsed special teams dedicated to drugs, prolific offenders and traffic safety in order to put those officers back on front-line duties.

“We’re just in response-oriented mode,” said Hunter. “We do zero proactive policing in this community because we just simply don’t have the time.”

Hunter, who once again described Penticton’s crime rate as “egregious,” said five new officers would be “a good start” towards addressing staff shortages.

In 2019 – the most recent year for which data is publicly available – each Mountie in Penticton had an average caseload of 170 files. That was by far the most of any detachment in a B.C. community with a population over 15,000; the next highest was Prince George at 134.

Council agreed to hire two new officers as part of its 2021 budget process, which will lift the detachment’s complement to 50 when those Mounties finally arrive.