Ward 1 residents had a chance to hear from Guelph's chief about a number of issues facing the downtown, including thefts from downtown, as well as violent crime like the two murders that have occurred so far in 2020.
Chief Gord Cobey and Sgt. Dustan Howe of the Guelph Police community resource unit spent an hour and a half in a Ward 1 virtual town hall, answering questions from the public, as well as from the two councillors in that ward, Bob Bell and Dan Gibson.
Ward 1 consists of much of Guelph's downtown, as well as areas east of the University of Guelph.
Among his responsibilities, Howe oversees the downtown resource officer program that was expanded to five officers in April as a pilot project.
Howe said more than 200 charges have been laid by the downtown resource officer team since then.
“Those officers have been laying a lot of charges in response to a lot of criminal activity and other activity that has been going on,” said Howe.
Earlier in the fall the Guelph Police announced the downtown resource officer pilot program would become permanent. During Tuesday's meeting Cobey said that will be achieved using the department's existing resources.
“We are very much mindful of the priority of the downtown and making sure we remain committed and engaged on that," said Cobey.
Downtown resource officers are downtown about 20 hours during the day, said Howe, with three or four of those hours being spent on foot.
“We like to interact with the community and we understand and recognize that is something tat the community has asked for, so we are just trying to respond in the best way that we can," said Howe.
The department will also be filling positions in the community resource officer team that have been vacant for many years.
“It was a resourcing issue and those positions were fulfilling other roles and were running vacant in some of those jobs," said Cobey.
It will also become someone's responsibility within that team to be a community liaison in the downtown.
“There will continue to be a surge of resources to support downtown,” said Cobey.
In addition, as part of the increase in officers approved in last year's budget, an additional two officers will be added to the traffic unit.
Cobey said as of last week the hiring of the 30.5 full-time equivalency positions that were approved in 2019 has been completed. He noted that the positions were not all hired at once, but staggered over time.
Factoring in officers that were hired as replacements for those who retired, Cobey guessed the department has hired about 40 people this year, no small feat considering much of that process was completed during COVID-19.
In response to a question from the viewers, Gibson asked about the growing frustration in the community in response to thefts from vehicles, break-ins and home invasions.
Howe noted that the majority of the thefts involved cars that were left unlocked. Even he is not immune after he once lost a set of golf clubs in his car overnight and they were taken.
"It was my own fault because I left them in there in plain sight," he said.
Cobey said it is important that everyone affected by any of those issues like thefts from vehicles, break-ins and home invasions reach out to police so it can be logged, even if the person affected believes the issue is minor.
"If people don't call then we don't know about it," said Cobey.
If enough complaints are raised in a certain area, the Guelph Police could commit resources to the problem in the form of its High Enforcement Action Team, called H.E.A.T. for short.
H.E.A.T. also benefitted from last year's hiring surge with the addition of two additional officers.
Cobey noted H.E.A.T. will soon be renamed the community response unit, which could be deployed in a number of ways depending on what is needed at the time.
“It’s having that surge capacity to focus on important initiatives in the community," said Cobey.
Another police initiative, last year's break enter auto theft team, helped Guelph to see reduction in its crime severity index score for the first time in years, said Cobey.
Howe also noted that propane tanks are being taken from backyard barbecues in some areas of the city by some people living rough in wooded areas.
“I can tell you anecdotally there are quite a few people living along rivers — both Speed and Eramosa — through the city," said Howe.
Charges are rarely laid in relation to the encampments, said Howe, unless there is additional illegal activity occurring within those encampments.
“If there is a public complaint we will address it, but we also have to be conscious that these are members of the community who are experiencing homelessness and we have to try and connect them to resources too.”
Responding to another question from the viewers, Howe addressed the two murders that have occurred in Guelph's downtown in 2020, as well as a stabbing that was reported to have occurred early on Tuesday.
Howe said he could't speak directly about the stabbing and one of the murders because they are before the courts.
“The other (murder) recently had a not criminally responsible finding by a judge, so that speaks for itself," said Howe.
He said the downtown is less violent than when he began his policing career and worked in the tactics and rescue unit, which he likened to a SWAT team.
“One of the responsibilities of that team was to police the downtown on bar nights — Thursday, Friday Saturday nights — every weekend. From the time I started in 2009 policing until now, the violence downtown has reduced significantly and I think that would be confirmed by our statistics," said Howe.
Gibson pushed back on that notion by saying that for some people the perception of an unsafe downtown has become their reality.
“If you are downtown and you are aggressively panhandled and you don’t see an officer or see help you assume it’s not a safe place," said Gibson. "Whereas if you are downtown and you are aggressively panhandled for change, but within five minutes you see an officer walking around, there is a perception there that things are under control."
He added: “I do appreciate the statistical answer, but I also do commend you on your commitment to putting officers in our downtown and reassuring residents that it’s a safe place to patronize."