32% drop in crime in New Westminster in the last decade

Crime is down in British Columbia. In New Westminster, it’s way down.

According to the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General of B.C., the provincial crime rate has dropped 19% over the past decade. In New Westminster, it’s down a striking 32%.

Over the past 10 years in New West:

  • criminal code offences decreased by 25%
  • annual crime rates per 1000 persons decreased by 35%
  • auto thefts decreased by 52%
  • robbery crimes decreased by 34%
  • overall property crime rate decreased by 32%

In their news release sharing the above statistics, the New Westminster Police said a number of factors have resulted in a lower crime rate, including new policing initiatives and demographic shifts.

“Province-wide a number of factors are involved in the decreasing numbers. These include policing programs such as the Bait Car program and PRIME reporting systems wherein police have instant access to information on criminals and criminal activity. Generally speaking, crimes tend to be committed by males in their late teens and early twenties. In BC, the population in this age group is decreasing,” it says in the NWPD release.

The NWPD also points to programs improving public awareness of crime and reporting criminal activities, specifically Crime Free Multi-Housing, the Park Safety Initiative, School Liaison Officers and, the Operational Support Unit.

If you want to be involved in improving public safety in New Westminster, you can call the NWPD’s Crime Prevention Unit at 604-529-2528 to find out more information on policing programs and volunteer opportunities in our community.

If crime is down, why don’t people feel safer?

Crime statistics show that New Westminster is a safer city than in past years. So why don’t people feel safer?

We all know someone who knows someone whose house has been broken into several times, or who has witnessed flagrant drug dealing, or seen a new ‘girl’ working 12th St. And then there’s the newspaper crime beat. A New Westminster man was recently arrested (and released on bail) for allegedly sexually assaulting a young woman near a Vancouver SkyTrain Station (and some people misheard it as a rape at 22nd St. Station). Cats were doused in paint thinner. Children were followed by a suspicious man in a truck near a school.

People remember stories, not statistics.

But when people believe their neighbourhoods to be unsafe, things get worse. When people are afraid, they don’t go out on the streets at night. They talk less to strangers (and neighbours). The change in behaviour leads to fewer eyes on the street and weaker neighbourhood ties. We get more crime, not less.

Unfortunately, we humans are just not very good at assessing the relative risk of certain behaviours. We overestimate some (the risk of being assaulted by a stranger when walking at night, for example) and underestimate others (the risk of being injured or killed in a car crash, which is one of the leading causes of non-disease related death).

In an essay on the psychology of security, security technologist and author Bruce Schnier identifies five common reasons why people are so bad at assessing risk:

  • People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.
  • People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.
  • Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.
  • People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can’t control.
  • Last, people overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny

In other words, ordinary dangers (car crashes, accidents at home) lack the powerful elements of story that make the extraordinary dangers (stranger attack or child abduction by a stranger) so compelling and scary.

Instead of focusing on the (now fewer) accounts of prostitution, drug dealing, and other bad behaviours, let’s focus our energy on things we can control. Clean up graffiti and litter. Be neighbourly. Spend time out on the street. Take care of each other and get involved in our community, and our city will continue to become a better place to live.

Note: this post was inspired by a comment I wrote on the Voice New Westminster blog, on the post by Jan Fialkowski, “Crime Stats Down in the City.” The post was also published as a letter in the Newsleader.

New West SkyTrain safety stats challenge assumptions

Photo: Mark Bek
Photo: Mark Bek

I was raised to be a bit paranoid about personal safety. Like many kids raised in the 1980s, it was impressed upon me that the world was a dangerous and unpredictable place. I was taught to fear strangers, to look both ways (and then look again) before crossing the road, to lock the door and close the windows at night, and to be wary of walking the streets after dark. The cautions took, and I am one to triple check the locks before going to sleep,  refuse to cross when the red hand is flashing and get nervous when the sun goes down.

As a dedicated transit user and pedestrian, I have not bought into the popular belief that taking SkyTrain is unsafe, but I do carry with me a mental ranking of which stations feel more or less safe. I was surprised to discover that many of my assumptions were just plain wrong.

The latest crime statistics challenge popular belief of SkyTrain safety in New West. New Westminster SkyTrain, for example, was ranked as the second least secure in a 2008 survey of transit riders, but the actual rate of crime places it 13th on the list. I would have assumed that my home station, 22nd St. SkyTrain, would have ranked somewhere in the middle of the pack, but it’s actually the third-worst station on the line for crime after Surrey Central and Gateway. Columbia Station ranked 10th for crime activity, Braid 11th and Sapperton 19th. The gap between the rate of crime at Surrey Central and Gateway compared to 22nd St. is pretty big, however – the crime rate is almost twice as high at those Surrey stations.

Interestingly, in the 2008 survey, Waterfront was the station where people were most likely to feel safe – but it actually has the fourth highest rate of crime, just behind 22nd St.  Columbia and Braid are about as safe as Scott Rd. New Westminster Station has almost the same rate of crime as Main St. Sapperton is safer than Gilmore, but has a slightly higher rate of crime than Metrotown.

The rate of person crime incidents in or near stations, per 100,000 passengers for New West’s SkyTrain stations are:

  • 1.38 at 22nd St.
  • 0.80 at Columbia
  • 0.79 at Braid
  • 0.71 at New Westminster
  • 0.55 at Sapperton

I do think it’s important to measure the drop in crime as well, however. Some stations have seen huge safety gains in the past year. Biggest improvements:

  • King George & Brentwood (tied) – 78% decline in crime
  • Rupert – 66%
  • Edmonds – 64%
  • Waterfront – 50%
  • New Westminster – 47%

And the stations that saw an increase in crime:

  • Braid – 980% increase
  • 29th Ave – 73%
  • Main St. – 27%
  • Granville – 11%
  • Gilmore – 3%

I’m no statistician, but I do find it interesting to compare the rate of crime to other life risks to get a bit of context in terms of just how “dangerous” it is to commute by SkyTrain.

First of all, B.C.’s overall crime rate in 2008 (notably excluding motor vehicle offences) was 9,600 per 100,000 people – which was an 8% decline from 2007, and the lowest recorded crime rate in 30 years. The average rate of crime on SkyTrain across the system was 0.71. SkyTrain’s overall crime rate dropped by 33% year over year.

I am often frustrated at the perception that taking transit – and in particular, SkyTrain, is less safe than driving. Yet the risk of death related to driving is 16.8 per 100,000 for B.C. males (8.4 for females). That’s about six times higher than the risk of being a victim of any sort of crime in or around the least safe station on the line.

Another big takeaway from reading all these reports on SkyTrain crime is how the safety of the surrounding neighbourhood impacts the rate of crime at any given station. This is something all of us have the power to impact. Whether you’re passing through a station or living nearby, if you see crime, report it. Those of us who live near SkyTrains can paint over graffiti, pick up trash, and take action to correct other minor property damage – research shows that people are more likely to litter when they see litter on the ground, and that leaving graffiti encourages hoodlums to return and add more.

So, do your part to improve the safety of your neighbourhood. And let’s all just get over misplaced fear of SkyTrain.

Graffiti teaches life lessons?

Like many Lower Mainland communities, graffiti plagues New Westminster. Typically blamed on ne’er do well Burnaby ruffians (surely our own sons and daughters wouldn’t dare!), here in the West End it seems every lamp post and electrical box is tagged with the “artists'” arcane scrawl. Recently our own back fence was hit. Every inch was marred with gobbledlygook in giant bubble letters. We were furious. How dare those (Burnaby!) scallywags come down our alley and scrawl all over our fence! The offending oeuvre had no discernible message or artistic value, at least not to our eye. As Will stood in the drizzle and spent several cans of black spraypaint to restore our fence, we gnashed our teeth over the little punks who think this sort of thing is fun.

Yet today I came across the blog of a ‘graffiti artist’ who swears he learned important life lessons while tagging lampposts and fences. What are these lessons?

  1. Never give up – Even though I was terrible at doing graffiti in the beginning I stuck it through because I really wanted it to work out. I wanted to be good at graffiti for some reason. Fast forward to 2008, I am the same way. When I want something not much can or will stand in my way, that’s an awesome trait to have. I never give up I just get pissed off, I mumble and I move forward. I hate being sh*tty at anything so I work long hours so I get good fast at whatever it is I’m into at the present time.
  2. Resourcefulness – I order to survive in any business and in graffiti you need to be resourceful and have some way to adapt. Many times police would find out about the “artwork” and we had to find new locations to paint on. Part of the process was to scour “spots” (places to paint), under bridges, abandoned walls and so on. I had a pretty good gift for finding graffiti spots all the time. I took that trait and I can usually find a way to make money from any type of topic I start researching from loans, car accessories etc. I can find what many other people cannot find, and make it work. That is a huge skill in a competitive world.
  3. Dedication – I saw many kids come ago when I was a graffiti artist. Most people where never dedicated to getting good at graffiti, I like some others were. It was important to me that my “pieces” looked good. i tried to make them look as good as possible. I didn’t see the point in writing on walls if it looked like junk. Personally I really wanted to make the place look better not worse. I dedicated lots of my free time to drawing and also painting the “perfect piece”.

One lesson graffiti artists don’t seem to learn is empathy. While they may see alley fences, light posts and abandoned buildings as canvases, their legacy is typically nothing more than an eyesore that property owners must clean up. The worst part is that graffiti that is not removed has now been proven to increase other incidents of crime in the neighbourhood.

The Economist reports that the ‘broken windows’ theory of crime (that one broken window leads to many, and that allowing litter and graffiti to remain in a city correlates with higher instances of other crimes including theft) has now been proven to be correct:

A place that is covered in graffiti and festooned with rubbish makes people feel uneasy. And with good reason, according to a group of researchers in the Netherlands. Kees Keizer and his colleagues at the University of Groningen deliberately created such settings as a part of a series of experiments designed to discover if signs of vandalism, litter and low-level lawbreaking could change the way people behave. They found that they could, by a lot: doubling the number who are prepared to litter and steal.

I didn’t know this, but the New Westminster police have a graffiti task force. You can report graffiti on the website and sign up to be a graffiti volunteer specialist.

Here’s what graffiti volunteers do:

Volunteers with this program work in cooperation with New Westminster Police and New Westminster Bylaws. They provide education and resources to victims, and encourage merchants and residents to remove tagging and report problems to the police. Our volunteers do not clean graffiti, but do document and photograph graffiti vandalism in hopes of assisting police with information that will lead to an arrest.

Here’s more from the NW police:

Graffiti may never be entirely eradicated. However, incidents of graffiti can be greatly reduced. Most importantly, do not ignore graffiti. The longer it is left, the more costly it will become for you and the rest of the community. Graffiti generates fear of neighbourhood crime, instability, and declining property values.

Email the police at graffiti@nwpolice.org if you see graffiti. They will investigate, and may also be able to provide some cleanup tips if it is your own property or neighbourhood that has been hit. If you’re looking for advice on cleanup, the Graffiti Hurts website has a helpful table of common surfaces and best methods of removal.

A case study of hope

Like many other places in the Lower Mainland, New Westminster has a homelessness problem. The problem isn’t just a lack of money for shelter, of course. Many, if not most, of the people huddled in doorways on Carnarvon and shuffling along Columbia are also struggling with addiction and mental health issues.

These people can be very scary. The worst of them are so full of rage that it boils around them.

This is the story of one such angry woman, called “Crow.” She took out her pain on both friends and foes until the day she turned her life around, calmed down and got clean.

She didn’t do it alone. New West Union Gospel Mission volunteers persisted through her black moods and their efforts were not wasted.

When she came for a free meal at the UGM, she was offered more than soup and sandwiches by her angels.

Eventually they helped her realize her spirit was starving. Drugs and alcohol were her way of numbing the pain she secretly felt.

“Most alcoholic-addicts are spiritually starving because of the trauma they suffered in their lives. Most of us escape that trauma through alcohol and drugs so we don’t have to feel, we don’t have to remember, we don’t have to do anything,” she said, surveying the crowded New Westminster mission following a pancake breakfast.

As she speaks, there’s a violent outburst from a man who’s come to eat, perhaps because he’s missed the meal.

“That used to be me,” said Lagarde, who describes herself as an animal when she lived on the streets.

It’s reassuring to hear of examples like this, of people who seemed hopeless and yet came through on the other side. And it’s a good reminder that those of us who are lucky enough to have opportunities others lacked need to overcome apathy and give back.