In 2018, the issue of safety in the Central Okanagan—both real and perceived—was a popular topic of discussion.
Linked by some to social issues facing the city, such as the ongoing opioid overdose crisis and a growing homeless population, public sentiment was the Okanagan, especially downtown Kelowna, was not as safe a place as it once was.
The issue even made its way into October’s civic election campaign, with mayoral challengers, and even some running for councillor seats, taking a “tough on crime stance” in a bid to win votes.
One lightning rod for criticism was the provincially-funded Cornerstone shelter on Leon Avenue.
Critics of the B.C. Housing shelter claimed because the temporary facility was a “harm reduction” shelter, where drugs could be used onsite, it could turn into an open marketplace for illegal drug sales.
Earlier in the year, in June, the city hired retired RCMP Supt. Bill McKinnon, to look at ways of making the city safer.
In his report, issued in early December following the civic election and the swearing in of the new city council, McKinnon recommended a series of measures be taken, but the former police officer shied away from recommending a heavy handed police approach.
“You can’t arrest your way out of this situation,” McKinnon told council, saying unlike when he ran the Kelowna RCMP detachment, drug use and possession are now often considered by the courts to be health issues, not always criminal acts. And he said much had changed since he retired from the forced in 2012.
The RCMP has repeatedly said much of the city’s crime is connected with drugs.
McKinnon called the current opioid crisis, which has gripped not only Kelowna but communities across North America, a “real game changer.”
In his address to council he also threw his support firmly behind the city’s Journey Home initiative to address homelessness,
McKinnon pointed to several steps the city has taken this year to help make streets safer, such as new security patrols in several areas including downtown, increased street cleaning, especially on Leon Avenue where Cornerstone, the Gospel Mission and many other services for people on the street are located, on-call recovery services for the collection of discarded needles and temporary washrooms.
But his overall message was that city hall has to take a leadership role in addressing the issues affecting the safety of the city, even if the causes are not of the city’s making.
He said the city needs to work with partners and lead initiatives to provide services that will help make its streets safer.
Shortly after McKinnon’s report was out, the city’s current top cop, RCMP Supt. Brent Mundle told city council there was a spike in property crime in the third quarter of 2018 and offences against people more than doubled. But overall, he described person offences as still “relatively” low in the city.
Mundle said he plans to employ more police resources on the street in 2019, especially in the downtown core, and will create a second Police And Crisis Team (PACT) where a health care worker rides with police officer and in an effort, where appropriate, to get people apprehended by police the health or mental health care services they need rather than taking them to jail or to Kelowna General Hospital’s emergency ward.
The effect of implementing McKinnon’s recommendations, the RCMP’s deployment of additional resources, the city’s initiatives to address homelessness, the construction of more supportive housing in the community by the province and other social program initiatives are all expected to be seen in the new year as they roll out along with the Journey Home initiative.
In the 2019 city budget, six more police officers were funded by the city, and while they are not expected to be on the job for about a year, four additional officers approved in the 2018 city budget will be reporting for duty early in 2019, said Mundle.