Jack Knox: LoJo shops battle thieves amid policing dilemma

The guy in the bright red jacket didn’t seem at all worried about getting caught when he swiped the $298 pair of shoes from The Dancing Lily’s window display.

Likewise, the shoplifters don’t seem overly perturbed when, a couple of doors up Johnson Street at Mango’s Boutique and Accessories, owner Nicole Salthouse tells them she’s calling 911. “They’ll laugh at me,” she says. “There are no consequences.”

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A man on a bicycle scooped Mango’s mannequin (and the $120 sweater it was wearing) from the sidewalk a couple of months ago. That was not long before someone else took off with three or four hats, priced at between $65 and $79 apiece. Salthouse’s husband gave chase, but the thief ran so fast that he lost the boots he had stolen from a construction worker earlier.

It’s not as though the area is dangerous, or that this stuff happens all the time — a store might get hit every couple of months — but when it does, it really hurts the funky, artsy little LoJo shops that are often owned by someone who can’t afford to take the loss.

“When you steal from me, it feels like you’re stealing from my house,” says Dancing Lily owner Lili Butterfield. “This is our life,” says Salthouse. “You feel helpless.”

What hurts even more is knowing that once the thief is gone, the crime falls down the priority list of the overstretched Victoria Police Department. “Back in the day, I’d get stolen from and there’d be a cop here in five minutes,” said Salthouse. No more.

That’s why LoJo business reps met with the Downtown Victoria Business Association on Friday, trying to figure out a solution that might include hiring private security.

It’s against this background that VicPD Chief Del Manak and some of the more left-leaning members of Victoria city council engaged this week in one of their periodic head-butting sessions over police spending.

Councillors indicated they would approve a budget that included the hiring of four unarmed special constables — ones who will cost less than regular officers — but grumbled about increasing VicPD annual spending by 4.3 per cent to $58.2 million. That kind of jump is unsustainable, they said — and they’re right.

The problem is that Manak and the downtown merchants are also right when they say the current level of policing is inadequate. It’s not good enough for the city to abandon women like Butterfield and Salthouse who are just trying to earn a living. Nor will the addition of those four constables — that’s one body per shift — make much difference.

It all comes back to the ongoing refusal of politicians to deal with the inequities and weaknesses of Greater Victoria’s fragmented policing model.

As it is, it’s left to the taxpayers of Victoria and Esquimalt alone to carry the entire burden of dealing with crime downtown, where — as is the case with every other city in the world — a disproportionate amount of the region’s thieving and thumping takes place.

Remember, Greater Victoria and Greater Vancouver are the only medium-to-large communities in Canada not served by a single police department. Instead, according to provincial government statistics, we have the 249-member VicPD covering Victoria and Esquimalt, the 161-member Saanich PD and 23-officer municipal forces in both Oak Bay and Central Saanich. Then there are the West Shore, Sooke and Sidney/North Saanich RCMP detachments, plus the Mounties working out of the regional HQ on Nanaimo Street.

That’s why Victoria’s police bill worked out to $520 per capita in 2017, and why the figure for Esquimalt, which pays 14.7 per cent of the VicPD budget, was $457. That compared with $292 in Saanich, $295 in Central Saanich and $257 in Oak Bay.

Those who live in Mountie municipalities paid less, in part because Ottawa shares the cost: $194 in Sidney, $164 in Colwood, $201 in Langford, $140 in North Saanich, $132 in Sooke and $165 in View Royal.

The parochial interests of the councils in Greater Victoria’s bedroom communities ensure the outlying municipalities will never amalgamate their departments with VicPD voluntarily. Why would they want to shift the tax load to themselves?

A veteran Saanich cop once put it like this: “Amalgamation makes sense, but not if the only goal is to solve Victoria’s budget problems.”

True, but the status quo leaves the region without anyone looking at the big picture, deploying the region’s police resources where they are needed most. Greater Victoria still doesn’t have a regional crime unit, or a high-risk offender team, or a better way of sharing intelligence, or any of the other units common in a community of close to 400,000.

The provincial government could wade in, but neither the New Democrats nor Liberals have shown the stomach to take on the municipal councils. And that leaves the women of LoJo to come up with a solution on their own.

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