The Nelson Police Department is hiring two Community Safety Officers (CSOs) to patrol downtown streets.
The officers will interact with downtown businesses as well as people with substance-use disorders and mental-health issues.
“The purpose of the CSOs is really to have more of a presence downtown and at community events,” police chief Donovan Fisher told a group of about 45 downtown business people on June 29.
The CSOs will not have an enforcement role but will assist police officers on the street.
“They would liaise with the street population, at times working directly with outreach workers, and may ask individuals to stop certain activities or move along,” Fisher told the Nelson Star in an email, adding that the CSO “will not take any enforcement action, but will request a member to attend and simply observe and report until an officer arrives.”
He said the CSOs will be uniformed differently from regular police officers. Fisher encouraged business owners to strike up working relationships with them. One CSO has already been hired, with another to come soon.
Fisher told the Nelson Star that “a large part of the funding” for the CSO’s salaries has come from donations through the Nelson Police Foundation. He said the department has also applied for support from the province’s Building Safer Communities Fund. Any shortfalls will be made up from the salary dollars that were allocated to several vacant police officer positions at the department.
In addition, two RCMP members will be brought on to help with foot patrols for the summer because the department is short staffed.
The meeting was organized by the Nelson and District Chamber of Commerce as an information session for businesses concerned about increased crime in the downtown core.
In May, Interior Health announced the opening of a safe inhalation site at the Clubhouse at 818 Vernon St., and then postponed it because of public backlash. The yard became the site for congregations of homeless people, and after several weeks of complaints from the neighbours and from the City of Nelson about criminal activity and threatening behaviour in the neighbourhood, Interior Health hired a security guard to clear the property.
This resulted in the dispersal of the group across the downtown business area. Several of the business owners at the meeting spoke about increased crime, intimidation and disruption in and around their businesses.
Fisher told the group that a person responsible for a spree of break and enters and other property crimes over the past two weeks in Nelson is now in custody awaiting a court appearance on eight charges.
Fisher said many of the people living on Nelson streets have come from other communities because there are more services here.
“For the most part, the escalation seems to be probably more driven by some of the people that have come into the community because of other shelters or services closing down and other communities,” he said. “The surrounding communities don’t seem to be doing their part. That’s probably our first biggest concern, beyond decriminalization.”
In January, the provincial government passed legislation that allowed possession of small amounts of opioids (including heroin, morphine and fentanyl), cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA.
Several municipalities in the province have recently announced they plan to create bylaws to ban public drug consumption, following complaints about drug use in city parks and other public areas.
Mayor Janice Morrison told the meeting that Nelson City Council is writing such a bylaw that will come to council for a vote at the next meeting.
“This is work that I as mayor have asked to have carried out,” she said. “We’ll have the debate (at council), and see whether or not it passes.”
She said she has lobbied the province to pass legislation banning public consumption across the province, but that could not happen until the fall when the legislature reconvenes.
The B.C. Chamber of Commerce (including Nelson chamber) has also made this request of the province, along with a request that the province ensure that businesses “are not unfairly taxed or financially impacted because of increased costs associated with crime and public safety linked to illicit drug use.”
Fisher said the police now have a practice of helping businesses get people sleeping in doorways to move in the morning.
“And generally, they’ve been pretty good at gathering their stuff up and moving along. We get the odd protest. But so far, I think if we use the nice approach, people are being compliant and moving on.”
Deputy chief Raj Saini told the meeting that this approach is necessary because of the BC Supreme Court decision Abbotsford (City) v. Shantz, in which the judge ruled that any homeless person has a right to sleep in an outdoor public space between 7 p.m. and 9 a.m.
“So we have to be nice when asking them to get up and move along,” he said. “We want to hear from businesses if they have concerns about how this is being done or not done.”
Overdose prevention sites, mental health
Fisher said his department supports overdose prevention sites but does not support the Clubhouse as a location. The department is working with Interior Health to find a better location that is not close to businesses, residents and nearby facilities used by families such as the Civic Centre.
He said overdose prevention sites should bear some responsibility for what consumers do when they leave, whether that be damage to property or damage to themselves.
Morrison said the city is also working with IH to determine an appropriate site, and she pointed out that could be on private land.
Fisher said that even though the number of drug poisoning calls to the police have decreased this year, the fire department has seen a 300 per cent increase, amounting to almost as many calls in May and June as in all of last year.
The police department has reduced its attendance at these calls and the fire department has increased theirs, Fisher said, because harm-reduction advocates have discouraged law enforcement’s presence. Police at the site of a drug poisoning, he said, can be interpreted as the appearance of criminal activity.
“This was a little frustrating on our part, because I’m sure our officers saved 30 or 40 lives last year because we were the first ones able to respond. Oftentimes we were there for 20-to-30 minutes before the ambulance got there.”
Fisher said sometimes the police are the only available resource to deal with mental-health issues, although the department should not be responsible for that work.
“We keep pushing the province and Interior Health to try and get us some resources to work with the officers.”
He said there should be a program in which a mental health worker is paired up with a police officer. “Money is earmarked to come to us for this,” he said, hopefully by the end of the summer.
This new service is one recommendations made for changes to the Police Act, which are expected to come before the legislature in the fall.