Police shift crime-fighting focus

Gary Bass -
Gary Bass
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Instead of working to solve each individual crime, police must focus more on rehabilitating repeat criminals.

That’s the crux of the new crime reduction strategy being pioneered at select cities across the province.

And B.C.’s top RCMP officer says the newest statistics have him convinced the strategic shift in thinking is slashing property crime rates.

“It’s the first real major breakthrough in terms of advances in the criminal justice system in a long, long time,” Pacific Region Deputy Commissioner Gary Bass told Black Press.

The numbers are impressive.

At six initial crime reduction strategy pilot sites, which include Maple Ridge, Coquitlam and Port Moody in the Lower Mainland, property crime plunged 27 per cent in three years.

Five more sites concentrating on chronic offenders are being added, including Surrey.

Even among police forces that are not part of the trials, Bass said, the key concepts are being deployed and good results are now showing up in non-pilot detachments like Langley.

That’s led to a roughly 25 per cent drop in property crime rates in the RCMP’s Lower Mainland District since 2004 – far ahead of the national 10 per cent drop and 15 per cent province-wide.

The transformation of thinking in policing circles has been simple but profound.

“It’s looking at the offender, not the offence,” Bass said. “The difference between a relatively minor offence and a major one often is just what happens to be the opportunity of the moment.”

The same philosophy has helped drive crime down 40 per cent in Britain, the inspiration for much of the reforms.

Bass calls police “the pointy end of the stick” that identifies repeat criminals, holds them for a while and bands together with offender management teams to try to change their path.

Officers in B.C.’s test sites now watch for known chronic offenders and work with them to try to keep them out of trouble.

Analysts use improved methods of tracking crimes and criminals to predict offence pattterns.

Prosecutors try to ensure an offender’s full record gets before the judge, and isn’t traded away in a deal with defence.

The Kamloops RCMP detachment has photos posted on the wall of each local chronic offender officers are tracking.

The message to offenders, Bass says, is officers will be there to enforce, but they are also there to help them if they’re willing to accept help.

Steering released offenders towards stable housing and ensuring they make it to appointments on time might seem more like social work than policing.

But it’s proving an effective blend of assistance and surveillance.

“It’s a carrot-and-stick approach, which is what offenders tell us that they need,” Bass said. “We’ve got to help them not to fail – especially in the early days.”

The British model isn’t without its faults.

There’s a much higher rate of incarceration there and higher public fears about crime despite its reduction – both of which the RCMP here want to avoid.

And British authorities have had much more public housing at their disposal to ease rehabilitation than exists anywhere in North America.

So far the change here has come mainly through policing alone.

Virtually no money has been put into expanded social services yet, in contrast with vast sums that are being spent in Britain.

Bass believes much more can – and must – be done to give offenders addiction treatment and help finding jobs, housing and other assistance to move them from the negative to the positive side of the social ledger.

RCMP crime reduction coordinator Allan Castle thinks B.C. can also do more to reshape prisoners while they’re behind bars.

He wants prisoners who are in custody awaiting trial put in classrooms to learn instead of stagnating, marking the days.

“You’ve got them for a month or two,” Castle said. “It doesn’t cost that much more to get them involved in treatment programs or other kinds of personal development.”

It’s a stark contrast with news headlines that reinforce public fear about murder and mayhem.

But Bass says police have never been more optimistic about their ability to drive change and make a difference.

Conventional wisdom among police was to ignore street-level drug addicts and crime and pursue kingpins who import cocaine by the boatload.

“Now I’m not so sure about that,” Bass said.


n 50 per cent of crime in B.C. is committed by 10 per cent of offenders, most of it property crime.

n Focus on repeat criminals is credited with a 27 per cent drop in property crime in six initial pilot sites since 2004.

n The gains have propelled B.C. to a 15 per cent overall property crime drop, significantly better than the national average.

n RCMP want to take the concept across the rest of Canada.

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