British Columbia

Public safety is a priority for B.C. voters. But what does that mean?

Voters across the province are expressing concerns about safety in their communities, and some say it's their No. 1 issue as they head to the polls this weekend. 

Politicians are banking on public's perception of crime, like random attacks or theft, criminologist says

Graffiti on a business in Vancouver's Chinatown on Jan. 17. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Voters across the province are expressing concerns about safety in their communities, and some say it's their No. 1 issue as they head to the polls this weekend. 

Politicians are responding, too. You'd be hard pressed to find a mayoral campaign that hasn't addressed public safety in some way. 

Gurpreet Singh Johal, a criminology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Surrey, B.C., says he's noticed a bigger emphasis on public safety in this election compared to years prior. 

"The question is, what is public safety?" he said. 

When it comes to politics, more often than not, Johal said, politicians are banking on what the public's perception of crime is — random attacks on the street or theft, for example.

"They all wanna talk about violent crime, but they're not talking about which specific type of violent crime," he said, adding that one of the most common forms of violent crime is domestic assault, something that rarely shows up in campaign platforms.

Kwantlen Polytechnic University criminology instructor Gurpreet Singh Johal says perceptions of public safety don't always match the reality. (Jon Hernandez)

Instead, he said, they focus on crimes of poverty.

"Let's scrutinize potentially what candidates are talking about when they're talking about public safety," Johal suggested.

For Lorraine Lowe, executive director of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver's Chinatown neighbourhood, improving public safety means "more boots on the ground" — that is, more police patrolling the streets. 

Lowe says Chinatown has suffered greatly over the past four years, as crime spread from neighbouring communities and anti-Asian hate grew, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fact, police-reported hate crimes rose 21 per cent provincewide in 2021 compared to the previous year, something Lowe says will encourage strong voter turnout among Chinese Canadians in B.C.

Lorraine Lowe, executive director of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver's Chinatown, wants to see more police patrolling the streets. (Jon Hernandez)

She says random attacks in Vancouver's Chinatown have become more prevalent, and seniors in the community are afraid to go out.

"I'm fearful, too. When I go to my car, I need to have eyes on the back of my head," Lowe said.

But for others, like Meenakshi Mannoe, public safety means investing in housing, a safe supply of drugs, crisis response and, ultimately, people. 

Mannoe, who is the criminalization and policing campaigner with Pivot Legal Society, says defunding the police and redistributing money into services to support mental health and addictions, among other things, would be her version of safety.

Last week, the Vancouver Police Union endorsed mayoral candidate Ken Sim, who promises to hire more than 100 new officers and outfit police with bodycams. 

"Even if we were to hire 100 new cops, 500 new cops, 1,000 new cops, as long as people are still experiencing homelessness and forced to live on the street, that public safety issue isn't going away," Mannoe said.

Johal said public safety comes down to a combination of both policing and making sure the right services are funded to help people, particularly those living in poverty.

Meenakshi Mannoe of the Pivot Legal Society doesn't believe more police would increase public safety for vulnerable people. (Jon Hernandez)

"The police might be a certain type of last resort," he said, adding there is more to consider than just law enforcement.

"If someone has mental health issues, and especially if they're your family member, do you want the police to be called, or do you want them to get treated? And what type of treatment is necessary? What type of resources do those specialists have to support this individual so they don't engage in harmful behaviour either towards other people or to themselves?"

With files from Jon Hernandez

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