Vancouver mayor promises more police in wake of downtown violent shoplifting spike

Click to play video 'Vancouver mayor reacts to crime complaints from business owners' Vancouver mayor reacts to crime complaints from business owners
Vancouver's mayor says the city is concerned about reports from business owners about increasing property crime. As Jordan Armstrong reports, the re-emergence of a dangerous street drug could be fueling the problem.

The mayor of Vancouver is promising more police will be deployed to help quash what many downtown store owners say is a dramatic rise in violent shoplifting.

Kennedy Stewart said Friday that he’s heard similar concerns about escalating crime from police Chief Adam Palmer, and that targeted operations have begun to try to crack down on the problem.

“This is the first time in a long time that this has happened, and this is why I think it’s really important to support an increase in frontline officers,” he said.

READ MORE: Vancouver store owner says shoplifting is way up downtown. Police say they haven’t noticed

Vancouver’s 2020 budget, which will be voted on by council Tuesday, includes money for 25 new police officers and 10 new civilian employees. The hires will be paid for as part of a planned $17-million increase to the police force budget.

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Stewart promised a majority of those new officers will be deployed to high-crime areas, with a focus on reducing property crime.

“What’s especially disturbing is the violence that’s attached with it,” he said. “(The Vancouver Police Board) is briefed on the most egregious incidents, and that’s led Chief Palmer to brief us that he’ll be diverting those resources.”

Click to play video 'Downtown Vancouver businesses report increase in shoplifting' Downtown Vancouver businesses report increase in shoplifting
Downtown Vancouver businesses report increase in shoplifting

Store owners who have spoken to Global News in recent weeks have described frightening attacks from shoplifters, which have become more frequent since the spring.

Employees and security personnel have been attacked by tire irons, lead pipes and knives at the slightest provocation, they’ve said — and those are just the ones who have been caught.

But it’s not just grocery and convenience store owners who have concerns. Many downtown hotels and hostels have had their own run-ins with thieves and break-in artists.

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Vavaan Rowa, who runs the St. Clair Hotel-Hostel on Richards Street, said she was startled awake last month at 3 a.m. by a masked bandit shining a flashlight through the skylight of her employee’s bedroom.

READ MORE: More downtown Vancouver store owners say violent shoplifting is getting worse

“It was a terrible situation,” she said. “The thieves have taken over.”

Outside the hotel, thieves have already made away with parts of the building, including the handrail and the heritage plaque issued by the city.

Now Rowa says she’s concerned about everyone who comes inside — whether they’re invited or not.

“They can get in everywhere they can with crowbars,” she said. “We never had to lock our doors. The front door was always open to invite the tourists in.”

Click to play video 'More Vancouver business owners complain about ‘epidemic’ of shoplifting' More Vancouver business owners complain about ‘epidemic’ of shoplifting
More Vancouver business owners complain about ‘epidemic’ of shoplifting

At the Blushing Boutique clothing store next door to the St. Clair, everyone now has to be buzzed inside. They also no longer keep a sale rack on the sidewalk anymore, after clothing and even the mannequin kept vanishing.

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“I’ve come in and had people undress (the mannequin) in front of me,” owner Shelley Klassen said. “I’ve chased them away, turned around, there’s another behind them trying to do the same thing. It’s been unbelievable.”

Dr. Bill MacEwan, a psychiatrist at St. Paul’s Hospital and a clinical professor at the University of British Columbia, says the uptick in crime — particularly violent incidents — could potentially be linked to a rise in methamphetamine on the streets around the same time.

READ MORE: Commercial Drive businesses link homeless shelter to uptick in crime

“Meth does cause sort of agitated, disorganized and sometimes aggressive behaviours,” he said. “I can’t relate whether that’s part of the crime spree, but you do have wonder.”

MacEwan said patients have also described using angel dust, PCP and other similar drugs that cause agitation.

Stewart pointed to the city’s efforts to get federal funding for a safe drug supply as a key way the city is attempting to combat the drug crisis, saying he hopes that, combined with increased police presence, can drive down crime.

READ MORE: Vancouver mayor says Trudeau ‘open’ to safe drug supply proposal to curb overdose crisis

The mayor said increased reports of crime in Oppenheimer Park, however, has made it more difficult for police to spread their resources as they normally would.

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“It means those officers aren’t on patrol in other parts of the city, like Strathcona, Chinatown,” he said.

“We’re hopeful the Vancouver Park Board can move ahead with their plan to deal with the problems in the park, and we can make sure we’re dealing with what’s clearly an emerging problem in the city.”

—With files from Jordan Armstrong