THUNDER BAY – A public meeting for citizens in Thunder Bay’s Red River ward provided an outlet for residents’ concerns over vandalism and disorder.
Around 50 people showed up to the meeting, hosted by Red River Coun. Michael Zussino at the 55 Plus Centre and attended by police Chief Darcy Fleury and Deputy Chief Ryan Hughes.
The meeting touched on a recent spike in vandalism in parts of the ward, which Hughes confirmed was reflected in police statistics.
The TBPS recorded 76 acts of mischief, including damaged property, in the Red River ward in June and July alone – about three times as many as in the preceding three months.
Of those acts of mischief, 46 involved broken glass, said Hughes.
Those included smashed glass in multiple bus shelters on River Street and Junot Avenue, an instance in which vandals broke 33 windows and doors at the 55 Plus Centre, and the smashing of vehicle windows in the Windsor Street area.
Fleury said a group of youths had been identified in a police investigation as being responsible for at least several of the acts.
“Our team was able to eventually get enough evidence, and it was a group of two or three young kids,” he said. “I believe they were all 12 or under.”
Those under the age of 12 cannot be charged with a criminal offenses, Fleury noted, adding he’s not convinced that approach would be the most effective, in any case.
“These kids are troubled – they have their own personal troubles,” he said. “Not that that’s an excuse or anything like that, but they need help in other ways.”
The TBPS operates some diversion programs that offer youth suspects opportunities like helping to fix property they may have damaged, Hughes noted.
Fleury says he is passionate about seeing more youth rehabilitation and diversion programs built in the city, but added local organizations will need to take the lead, rather than police.
Northwood Coun. Dominic Pasqualino, in attendance Thursday, said the community should also look to non-police solutions.
Pointing to high demand for services at the Underground Gym youth centre, he suggested funding should be invested in those approaches, as well as police.
“I think that’s a big direction to go… to maybe switch some assets to doing some preventative stuff,” he said.
Several residents said the need for parental responsibility should be emphasized more when it comes to criminal behaviour by youth, a point with which Zussino voiced agreement.
“As a teacher, I see it in my everyday,” he said. “Kids are lost in the shuffle because of family dynamics. Before, there was mom and dad, and this is where you lived… These are the rules, et cetera. But now, with fragmented families, [it’s] ‘I live here for two days, I live here for three days – where do I live?’”
“I can see these kids are lost, because they’re like, ‘Where am I going? Who’s looking after me?’ And then they get into the trouble they fall into. Someone’s got to take some ownership.”
Curfew concept floated
The discussion over young offenders led one resident to call for a youth curfew.
“Why is there such an opposition to a curfew?” the person asked. “Certain ages, certain times of the evening.”
“What good is a 12-year-old doing out at one o’clock in the morning? Nothing. Shouldn’t be out there, period.”
Zussino responded positively to the idea.
“That’s a good suggestion, actually,” he said. “If you do put a curfew of 11 [p.m.], I think that will mitigate some of these [issues].”
Another resident warned enforcing a curfew could tie up police resources.
Fleury said he hasn’t heard public feedback calling for a curfew, but that it could be examined.
Residents see disorder rising
Several residents alleged the issues of vandalism were just part of a rise in behaviour that, if not criminal, is causing disorder and disruption.
One woman living near St. Bernard elementary school said repeated instances of public intoxication, drunk driving, and public fornication in the area were becoming more brazen.
“I’ve called and reported it, but it keeps happening,” she said.
Another resident living near the intersection of River Street and Cumberland said his home had suffered several break-in attempts and he had witnessed assaults nearby.
“I’ve got a lot of problems on my block – I live right across from 100 [or so] tents,” he said. “I stopped walking – I couldn’t. I’m a reasonably healthy, not-too-easily-intimidated person, and that just wasn’t a safe walk for me to make anymore – especially past the liquor store.”
Pointing to the experience in Sioux Lookout, that resident asked if the city could work with the LCBO to arrange reduced opening hours or a relocation.
Zussino expressed openness to the possibility, adding the best solution might be to close the location entirely.
Calls for community policing
Several residents suggested a neighbourhood policing approach could help address what they described as growing issues of crime and disorder, noting the TBPS had maintained a community policing office in the Windsor area in the past.
Fleury and Hughes agreed residents are unlikely to see the force return to neighbourhood offices, but called the request for neighbourhood beat policing a common one, suggesting they could take smaller steps in that direction.
“We discussed it at the senior leader table,” said Fleury. “It’s been brought up at every community meeting we’ve been to… and suggested to us that that’s a good idea.
“The initial conversations we had before summer began was, we’re not in a position right now resource-wise to do that, but we’ll explore it again, we’ll keep looking at it, and maybe see if there’s an opportunity to do that further down the road.”
The police chief said work targeting gangs, guns, and drug trafficking is the top priority and the TBPS does not have the resources to also focus on neighbourhood policing.
“That’s kind of tied up the majority of whatever resources we had to do more of the proactive, community policing type of thing,” he said.
That situation means neighbourhood offices would be ineffective, Hughes argued.
“The way policing is right now, our service is so busy, I would 100 per cent guarantee [a] neighbourhood police officer would be drawn to some other part of the city to help out with demand calls,” he said.
Used to be a community policing office in Windsor area, another resident said