‘We don’t have all the answers’: Deputy police chief on rise of unprovoked attacks in Vancouver

Click to play video: 'VPD say 4 people per day are victims of violent stranger attacks, and many of those attacks have a mental health component'
VPD say 4 people per day are victims of violent stranger attacks, and many of those attacks have a mental health component
New statistics from the Vancouver Police show a major increase in violent stranger attacks, and Deputy Chief Howard Chow says many of those incidents have a mental health component. Rumina Daya reports – Mar 1, 2022

Over more than three decades as a police officer, Howard Chow says he’s never seen anything quite like the staggering number of unprovoked assaults on strangers in Vancouver.

It’s an alarming set of “extraordinary incidents” and there is no quick and simple way to crack down on the problem, the Vancouver deputy chief constable told Global News on Tuesday.

“We don’t have all the answers. We’ll stay in our lane, but oftentimes, we’re seeing these things before anybody else is and we want to make sure it’s out there, raise the awareness, sound the alarm bells.”

Vancouver Deputy Police Chief Howard Chow speaks about the disturbing rise of unprovoked assaults on strangers in the city. Approximately four people are attacked each day by an unknown suspect, according to the Vancouver Police Department. Luca Sgaetti/Global News
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According to the Vancouver Police Department, an average of four people are the victims of random, groundless attacks by unknown suspects in the city each day. The figures don’t include barfights, robberies, incidents of road rage or other assaults where the individuals are known to each other.

Chow recounted extreme examples, including a suspect who “took a swipe” at someone who refused to give them a cigarette, then stabbed someone in the face at a sushi restaurant before punching a woman in the face at a bus stop.

“These are the incidents that I’ve seen over and over and over again,” he said. “We’re finding there are repeat offenders on this.”

Click to play video: 'VPD investigating 60 assaults over long weekend'
VPD investigating 60 assaults over long weekend

His comments come within days of a particularly egregious crime spree. One man allegedly attacked five women within 40 minutes last Saturday. The previous weekend, Vancouver police said they responded to 60 separate assaults, 22 of which were random.

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The VPD is diving into the data now, Chow added, and discovering that some of the perpetrators in the city have records of between 200 and 500 previous police interactions.

“Part of it is, you know, having to deal with the COVID restrictions similar to everybody else,” he explained.

“The criminal justice system has had to make modifications as well … certain people that may end up in jail aren’t ending up in jail. We’ve got backlogs that are taking place.”

Chow said social policies play a role too — in particular, a lack of long-term housing in combination with wraparound care available around the clock for those most in need.

“When people are saying we’ve got wraparound care — well, no, you don’t,” he said. “At 3:00 in the morning that wraparound care is a 24-year-old desk clerk whose dealing with someone screaming and yelling in his or her room.

“Where is the psych nurse that’s going to go upstairs and defuse and deconflict and deal with that instance?”

Of the police calls involving a “mental health component,” he added, 84 per cent involve violence, danger or criminality and 12 per cent involve weapons. Twenty-six per cent of the calls come from health-care providers in need of police assistance.

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Chow said he doesn’t know the precise relationship between those statistics and the spree of unprovoked stranger attacks in the city, but it’s clear that the province and city need to “scale up” supports.

Click to play video: 'VPD says ongoing project underway to tackle street violence'
VPD says ongoing project underway to tackle street violence

Chow applauded the work of health-care providers and said the province’s mental health programs are “second to none,” but “the missing element in this is the recognition, the alignment, the co-ordination.”

“I don’t think this is a specific incident that’s going to be fixed in a specific time period,” the veteran officer explained.

Meanwhile, the VPD is doing its best to chase down the perpetrators of random attacks. According to Chow, the detachment arrests and recommends charges for around 65 per cent of serious assault suspects — “pretty high numbers.”

Officers have also launched a public education campaign about safety, including pop-up tents around the city where officers listening to public concerns and hand out free personal safety alarms.

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The VPD fields about 600 calls for service each day, 15 or 16 of which are assaults, said Chow.

— with files from Rumina Daya

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