Residents in the Peace region continue to feel impacts from the perceived rise in levels of property crime, with some calling on local government officials to act.
In April, members of the Fort St. John’s business community spoke with city council detailing their experiences with property crime and how it’s impacted their businesses.
These conversations were part of what prompted the city to host a “community safety open house and trade show,” allowing residents to provide their perspectives and feedback on community safety.
Executive director of the Fort St. John & District Chamber of Commerce, Kathleen Connolly, said many in the local business community have reported feeling frustrated and defeated after being victim to multiple break-ins with no support from local, provincial or federal governments.
Fort St. John RCMP detachment commander Anthony Hanson maintains that while the city’s property crime levels have “certainly escalated” over the last six to 12 months, Fort St. John is still below the highs of general crime levels the city saw before the pandemic.
“We saw a decrease throughout COVID, and now well, COVID is over, and things are returning to what I would classify as a more normal crime rate for Fort St. John,” Hanson told Energeticcity.ca, adding that the city has historically had fairly high levels of property and violent crime.
He said based on statistics, the volume of crime in Fort St. John hasn’t changed, but the public’s attitude toward it has.
“The frustration and anger that’s exhibited on social media was not present four years ago when the crime was higher,” Hanson said.
Energeticcity is the voice of the Peace. Support our investigative reporting and be the reason we can cover the next story. Give $10 a month today!
However, the detachment is exploring options to set up a regional crime prevention unit aimed at addressing trans-jurisdictional crime seen in the Peace and over the Alberta border.
Many businesses have admitted they don’t report many of their thefts to the police, meaning these offences aren’t included in RCMP statistics, which is how governments assign funding to police detachments.
In the last edition of Disrupting the Peace, we looked at what was being done to address the number of repeat property crime offenders in the Peace region.
In this installment, we look at how businesses in Fort St. John are being impacted by repeated property crime offences. We speak with local government officials, business owners, the Fort St. John & District Chamber of Commerce, and the Fort St. John RCMP detachment to get a sense of what is actually occurring in the Energetic City and what’s being done to address it.
Small businesses continue to feel the pressure of repeated criminal activity
Executive director of the Fort St. John & District Chamber of Commerce, Kathleen Connolly, said small business owners being impacted by property crime are feeling defeated and frustrated because there aren’t supports in place to allow them to feel safe in their place of business.
She stated there are a number of businesses, particularly small ones, that are reaching their limit and shutting their doors.
“The burden of running and operating a business right now is overwhelming. I think you add in the fact that maybe you don’t feel safe, or your employees don’t feel safe, and you can’t be certain that there’s not gonna be a new risk in your business. I think they’re just defeated,” Connolly explained.
Christopher Herriot, the owner of North Peace Optometry Clinic, said in a letter to Fort St. John council that he’s taken measures to protect his staff and business, including installing security cameras, increased lighting, secure locks, and alarm systems.
“Seeing other businesses being broken into is disheartening. It is challenging to be an entrepreneur, and being a victim of a crime is a major setback. For myself, feelings of fear and uncertainty will discourage my passion for growth and developing new business opportunities,” he said.
Connolly said businesses feel like they need to be supported in a more meaningful way by governments.
“That doesn’t mean replace my window because it’s been broken. It means we need to get to the root cause of this issue and create strategies that are actually creating safe communities,” Connolly continued.
Businesses experiencing the financial impacts of repeated property crime offences are also having to contend with their insurance costs increasing if they utilize their coverage to repair damages or cover their losses.
“One of the frustrating things that we’ve heard from officials before is ‘yeah, crime happens. Just use your insurance,’ which is a really tone-deaf answer to business owners who can’t afford an increase in insurance, let alone afford $3,000 for a new window that’s getting broken every other month,” Connolly said.
She said these increased costs, plus the cost of hiring and generally feeling unsafe in the downtown core, are causing businesses to shorten their hours.
In a letter to Fort St. John council, the manager of Carter’s Jewellers, Karleen Jones, spoke about finding a man hiding behind a dumpster with meat cleavers, knives and “other paraphernalia” while she was returning to work from her lunch break.
“I often wonder as we go to leave if someone will be waiting at our back door or hiding behind our dumpster again. In a community that is putting so much effort into bringing people back to our downtown, we cannot ensure that shoppers aren’t harassed or our businesses were broken into,” she wrote.
Another local business owner, Tyler Soule of Peace Country Rentals, said he no longer speaks about the safety of the city.
“PCR has always had a certain amount of theft, which comes with every business operation, but in the last 2 years, we have seen theft, both attempted and acted upon, double in both frequency and value,” Soule said
“We have cameras, we have security patrols, and now we are going to spend $50,000 on GPS devices,” he added.
But Connolly isn’t just sitting back while her members are having these experiences. On behalf of the Chamber, she’s made recommendations to Fort St. John’s mayor and council regarding measures they can take to try to alleviate the volume of property offences.
Her recommendations include things like improved lighting in business areas, bolstering the amount of RCMP patrols in the city, and reinstatement of police bike patrols.
She believes the city also needs to ensure that the RCMP has adequate resources. She said her concern is that if they don’t, there may be dire consequences, adding that she’s heard from some owners who have started keeping a weapon at their business because they don’t feel safe.
“That tells me that not only is an owner at risk but now somebody who may be committing, it could even be petty theft—their lives could be affected in a really big way,” Connolly said.
Chamber, other community organizations, and residents step up to help improve community safety
At the City of Fort St. John’s Community Safety Open House and Trade Show earlier this month, mayor Lilia Hansen said the Fort St. John Chamber has taken a strong leadership role when it comes to exploring solutions to improve community safety.
“They’re a perfect advocacy group because they’re a conduit between everything from businesses to nonprofits to different levels of government. They’ve worked really hard to be able to have conversations with ministers,” Hansen said.
“I think government does listen to them and is more eager to listen because they know they’re not a special interest group with a sole focus. They’re coming with facts,” she continued.
The Chamber was joined by city staff and councillors, Northern Health, RCMP, Urban Systems, and the Fort St. John Salvation Army to chat with residents and provide information about their respective services.
Communications manager for the city, Ryan Harvey, said well over a hundred residents attended the open house, many of whom interacted with the organizations and provided their feedback on the issue.
“The overall consensus from participants and representatives from those agencies was that there was certainly a fair bit of anger, but also fairly constructive conversations about what could happen or what needs to happen,” Harvey said.
He said the event was an opportunity for the community to come together and see what challenges the city is facing, but also find out what the opportunities are and what kind of programs can be implemented.
A survey is also available for residents to share their thoughts and feedback on community safety.
One solution suggested by a local business was to establish a way for residents to submit photos and share their experiences with property crime, which Hansen said would be an asset for city officials when they engage with other levels of government.
Another suggestion that was brought forth was bringing back Citizens on Patrol to assist the RCMP.
COPS program a “healthy outlet” for residents to assist the community
Fort St. John RCMP detachment commander, Inspector Anthony Hanson, said he’s changed his mind about having a Citizens on Patrol (COPS) program in the city after having some internal conversations and engaging with stakeholders.
The first reason for Hanson’s change of heart is that the RCMP simply can’t be everywhere at once, and he’s had success with COPS programs in the past in other locations he’s been stationed at.
“They could be an extra set of eyes, and that is their only role. So it’s just making sure that boundaries are set for their safety and the safety of the public,” Hanson said.
He also believes the COPS program would actively engage residents and allow them to assist RCMP in a legitimate way.
“There’s a lot of public interest in [property crime,] and not all of it is healthy. We’re trying to provide people with a healthy outlet where they can assist their community and the police and remain on the correct side of legislation,” Hanson said.
He added that if a group similar to Citizens Take Action (CTA) were to start in Fort St. John, they would not have the support of the detachment.
CTA is a vigilante group based in Dawson Creek that said last November they had “lost confidence in our local RCMP detachment’s ability to address the acute rise in crime.”
“Any actions that are outside the purview of the Criminal Code and legislation of the province or the country are not supported. Two wrongs do not make a right. If you want to assist us effectively, providing information in the correct manner or joining Citizens on Patrol would be an excellent way,” Hanson said.
Hanson stated that the Canadian justice system was developed from English common law over a thousand years to ensure the fairest application of justice toward the accused.
“We have a professionalized police service, the Crown Prosecution legal service, and appointed judges for a reason. That’s why they make arm’s length decisions because they’re not emotionally involved,” he explained.
“It’s not about revenge or retribution—it’s about justice, public safety, and proportionality.”
Property crime in Fort St. John is “definitely escalating” but remains under historical norms
Hanson said property crime levels are certainly rising, but the number of offences continue to linger below levels seen before the pandemic.
He noted that there were 60 break and enters to businesses in the municipal area in 2022 compared to 57 in 2018 and 89 in 2015.
Despite statistics showing that break-ins were significantly higher in the past than they are now, Hanson said the public’s attitude toward these offences has changed significantly in the last four years.
“People are angry, or they’re becoming frustrated much more quickly. They want instant solutions, and they’re not willing to accept that some things take time. You can’t charge and convict somebody in three days—and you certainly can’t do it fairly,” Hanson stated.
He said everyone living in Canada has rights and voiced his concern that with the frustration being felt by residents, those inherent rights may be getting forgotten.
“The same rights apply to all of us. We, as citizens, don’t get to choose who we think should have more rights than others. That’s a bad road to go down.”
There may be a reason why RCMP statistics aren’t reflecting what residents and businesses are reportedly experiencing.
After repeated incidents, frustrated business owners admit they no longer report property crime offences to the RCMP
In her letter to Fort St. John council, the owner of ZooFood Inc, identified as Emily, said her business had been broken into 25 times over the past 11 years.
She said that after her business was broken into five times over a two-week period, she reportedly received a letter that said she would be charged a call-out fee if the RCMP were called again.
“That’s when we stopped getting the police involved. We still get broken into. We just don’t let our alarm system call the police,” the business owner said in her letter.
Hanson said the detachment doesn’t send such letters or bill for services but noted that the city might have sent the letter if they deemed the alarm false.
Ryan Harvey, communications manager with the city, said Fort St. John has a Nuisance Abatement and Cost Recovery Bylaw that can be used to issue a ticket to the owner or occupier of a property that has “repeatedly had calls for service without action to address them.”
Harvey said he couldn’t comment on the situation that occurred with ZooFood Inc. but stated that he reached out to the city’s bylaw department to get additional information, which Energeticcity.ca did not receive before publication.
Owner of D Bauer Mechanical, Rui Miranda, told Energeticcity.ca that since September 2022, his business has been victim to 17 property crime offences, and just three of those incidents have file numbers.
The lack of file numbers is because Miranda hasn’t reported the other fourteen cases to RCMP because he believes the detachment doesn’t have the capacity to investigate those incidents.
“There just doesn’t appear to be enough time to deal with the petty theft stuff, even though we’re getting into well over 100,000 bucks in losses,” Miranda said.
Miranda believes that the city is averaging about 20 to 30 incidents per day, but RCMP statistics from January to June 2023 show 69 reported break-ins to businesses within the city and eight break-ins to rural businesses.
Hanson said that other businesses have also admitted to him they don’t report many of their thefts, which he said is an issue for a couple of reasons, the first being that it doesn’t allow RCMP to investigate those incidents.
Unreported theft also doesn’t make its way to the city’s crime statistics, something that was pointed out by both Hanson and Miranda.
“If we don’t know about it, there is no statistical data on it,” Hanson said, adding that this data is how municipalities and governments assign funding for police services.
He said if residents are dissatisfied with the services they receive from public institutions, they should contact their MLA or MP.
A multi-faceted issue requires a multi-faceted solution
When it comes to property crime, communications manager for the city, Ryan Harvey, said there won’t be just one magic solution, but instead, it will take small incremental changes across multiple agencies.
“There’s no overnight cure. We’re talking about changes to provincial and federal policies, local support, social services, all of those pieces that have to come together to make these incremental changes to help with these challenges,” Harvey explained.
The province recently approved a multi-year investment of $230 million dollars to the RCMP’s base funding to hire more officers under B.C.’s Safer Communities plan.
Hanson is in the process of writing a business case to access some of that funding to stand up a regional crime reduction unit aimed at addressing the prolific trans-jurisdictional property occurring in the Peace and over the Alberta border.
“I’m hoping to be able to show that there’s a significant need for that type of unit here. I think it would be incredibly beneficial. As an example, just that string of more serious break and enters that were occurring earlier this year, 75 per cent of those were traced back to one individual who’s now in custody—and that was just over a several-month period,” Hanson said.
The detachment is also working with the Fort St. John Chamber of Commerce to give business owners tips on how to “harden” their businesses.
Both the province and the City of Fort St. John are exploring different initiatives aimed at tackling the issue of non-violent crime impacting the community.
The province said to address the number of non-violent repeat offenders, it’s ensuring that individuals throughout the province have access to multiple supports from trained healthcare professionals and community members.
According to a ministry spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office, other supports being rolled out by the province include expanded peer-assisted care teams, more funding for the B.C. brain injury alliance, the development of a scalable model of addiction care, and more community transition teams that connect those leaving a provincial corrections centre with mental health and substance use supports as they transition back into the community.
The City of Fort St. John is also looking at rolling out its own support programs and is gathering resident feedback on two initiatives aimed at improving housing and addiction support.
The city will also be engaging with the province in the fall at the annual Union of BC Municipalities convention and has requested a meeting with the minister of public safety to discuss the challenges the city is facing.
Harvey said that municipalities across B.C. are facing similar challenges.
“These topics are certainly going to come up at UBCM in the fall and are going to result in some resolutions that are passed for them to go on to the province for them to address. Hopefully, some of the challenges that are being faced or are addressed at the provincial level are also addressed at the federal level,” Harvey stated.
In the meantime, the city continues to meet regularly with the Chamber of Commerce, Northern Health and other organizations to try to find more solutions.
It’s important to note that while those experiencing homelessness or people that may be suffering from problematic substance use may commit some property crime, they are not the group who are primarily behind the bulk of property crime offences in the region.
Hanson said there is a difference between a “prolific offender” and what is called a chronic offender.
“A chronic offender is generally someone who is unhoused that has a lot of contact with the police due to their addiction. What that historically meant was they’re intoxicated, they can’t care for themselves, or they’re screaming and yelling in a public place, or scaring people,” Hanson explained.
“They’re not doing multiple break-and-enters. If they were, we would classify them as a prolific property offender,” he continued.
He said, in his experience in Fort St. John, it’s not chronic offenders who are committing a majority of property crime offences.
“Do they have drug habits? Absolutely. But they are not the person who’s really struggling and who’s in a sleeping bag on the side of the street. I’m not saying that person may not do occasional property crime, I don’t know, but they are not prolific offenders in my experience.”
This is part two of the Energeticcity Investigates series Disrupting the Peace, which aims to delve further into crime being committed in our region.
You can read part one here.
This is an ongoing issue in our community, and we will continue to keep residents informed. Those who wish to share their experiences are encouraged to email email@example.com