Calgary

'Huge increases in crime': Farkas, Farrell want downtown police station reopened

City councillors looking to curb downtown crime asked Tuesday for a review into the closure of a police station in the core with hopes to reopen it.

Victoria Park station closed in November 2017

The Victoria Park police station was located at 334 11th Ave. S.E. (Dave Will/CBC)

City councillors looking to curb inner-city crime are calling for a review into the closure of a downtown police station with hopes of it reopening.

The Calgary Police Service's Victoria Park office was the only downtown police station when it closed in late 2017.

Citing accessibility, rising crime and concerns about the Sheldon M. Chumir Centre's supervised drug consumption site, Coun. Jeromy Farkas is asking for a review of the closure.

"We've seen huge increases in crime ... [and] violence in the downtown core, and I think now more than ever this decision needs to be reviewed," the Ward 11 representative told reporters outside council chambers Tuesday.

In a news release, Farkas referenced 2018 police statistics that reflect a jump in downtown crime — namely, public violence up 35 per cent and break-and-enters up 55 per cent — for pursuing "immediate action."

Another inner-city councillor, Ward 7's Druh Farrell, is partnering with Farkas on the request for an administrative inquiry.

"The crime is on the increase and a lot of that has to do with addictions and other social issues and so what I want to do is set up that community for success and look at at the forecasted requirements for policing," said Farrell.

"What we're asking for in this administrative inquiry is simply 'what are your forecasts for' and 'have you considered these issues for policing' and 'should we not consider them in planning the community.'"

The administrative inquiry will go to council next week, on Sept. 30.

Police Chief Mark Neufeld says the force is well aware of the issues facing the city's core.

"I think the numbers thus far would suggest that the removal of the Victoria Park site didn't have an impact on crime down there. But there's also the question of perceptions of crime and how Calgarians feel about the area. So we'll take all of that into consideration," he said.

Farkas wants 'brick-and-mortar police station'

After the Victoria Park station was closed two years ago, its officers were moved to the Ramsay station in the southeast.

In November 2018, police deployed a mobile community outreach police station to the inner city after a pilot project of the vehicle saw promising results.

But Farkas says it's not enough, in part because the mobile station's location is shared only through social media.

"We were promised that the mobile command vehicle would allow for increased police presence," Farkas said. 

"I do grant that it is effective in a certain way, but I don't think that you can beat having that permanent brick-and-mortar police station. Consider that not everyone has immediate access to, say, internet or telephone."

Citing accessibility, rising crime and concerns about the Sheldon Chumir Centre's supervised drug consumption site, Ward 11 Coun. Jeromy Farkas is asking for an immediate review of the police station closure. (Scott Dippel/CBC News)

With the BMO Centre's expansion and the city's upcoming arena likely to draw more Calgarians downtown, Farkas says a review of the Victoria Park closure was promised, and now is the time to do it.

"No matter where you are in Calgary, you deserve to go about your life safely and securely," he said.

Downtown issues 'just unprecedented'

Safeworks, the Sheldon M. Chumir Centre's supervised drug consumption site, opened around the time that the station was closed, Farkas said, and has contributed to the area's destabilization.

"Some of the issues that we're facing … downtown are just unprecedented. We're seeing a huge rise in mental health and addiction issues," Farkas said.

Safeworks remains controversial, with police reporting an increase of calls to the area earlier this year.

But the supervised drug consumption site, and others like it across Alberta, have reported a 100 per cent success rate in reversing overdoses.

When asked if he had considered that a heavier police presence near the consumption site might deter people from using it, Farkas said its services were legal, and he hoped only to deter "social disorder" and "actual criminal activity."

Marco De Iaco, executive director of the Calgary Downtown Association, says a more visible police presence would help fight the perception that downtown is unsafe.

"The downtown presence of a police station, in the heart of downtown, makes a statement and it certainly does impact that perception because you have more officers and more police coming and going from those offices and I think that's really important," he said.

CPS 'stretched to the limit'

The outgoing chair of the Calgary Police Commission, Brian Thiessen, questioned why councillors would ask for the station to be re-opened just two years after its closure.

"I think that city council cannot approve a four-year budget that asks for cuts halfway through a budget. We're now visiting with them again for cuts in 2020 and then to come out of the blue with a request that we put in a new district office in downtown Calgary. It's a little bit of ping-pong. It's not sound financial planning," he said.

Farkas didn't estimate the expense of reopening a downtown police station, but said he wants "all options" on the table, and to get the city talking about how it can reduce the cost.

Some of his ideas included volunteer-run police stations and land-leasing.

"City council can't direct police, but we are responsible for the budget that we give over to the police commission," Farkas said. 

"This is not a criticism of police. This is starting a conversation about how … we can give these first responders and police officers, who are stretched to the limit, the resources that they need to be able to serve their community well."

The Calgary Police Service was hit with a $7-million budget cut by city council earlier this year.

With files from Scott Dippel

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