Business owners in at least two major Canadian cities are digging deeper into their pockets to pay for private security guards to patrol their streets after police say they are too busy to respond to merchants' minor calls for help.
Members of Toronto's Chinatown Business Improvement Association (BIA) voted late last month to spend $60,000 on private security guards to patrol their streets after police told them they were too busy for nuisance complaints.
"We would have problems like drunks standing outside the front doors harassing patrons who were trying to come inside," says Stephen Chan, president of the BIA, which has 500 members. "We would call police but they wouldn't come until two hours later, and by then, the problem would be long gone."
Chan says some of the merchants were threatened with assault when they tried to deal with the offenders themselves rather than wait for police.
|Photo courtesy of Downtown Vancouver BIA|
|A red-jacketed employee of the DVBIA Ambassadors program helps tourists find their way in downtown Vancouver. |
Business owners met earlier this year with senior police officers, who listened carefully and seemed sympathetic about the situation.
But they told Chan that - with officers frequently faced with other calls including domestic assault, robbery and traffic collisions - the merchants' calls were low priority.
"They said they want to help us, but their hands are full with so many other problems."
That doesn't make sense to former Toronto mayor John Sewell, who confronted the city's police services board in September over what he saw as "under-worked" local police officers.
Sewell looked at data from a recent report and calculated officers each arrest an average of one person every seven weeks, with the vast majority of those arrests not involving violence. During an average shift, Sewell says the statistics show officers respond to one call for assistance each from the public.
It wasn't known if those arrest statistics included police officers doing administrative tasks or school resource officers, however.
"I was at that meeting and the chief was quite clear with Mr. Sewell that his statistics were misleading," says Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash. "Our officers perform a number of valuable different tasks within the community and not all of them involve regularly making arrests.
"I believe people would expect us to deal with the urgent calls that involve public safety first. There are quite a few cases of security guards in shopping malls or office towers who deal with problems on the nuisance end of things. Police concentrate their time on larger issues," Pugash says.
Late this summer, Chinatown BIA members pooled $7,000 to hire a private security guard firm to patrol their streets part-time as a three-week pilot project. The guards did not have the same powers as police, but could make a citizen's arrest if they saw a crime being committed.
Chan says a majority of their time was spent enforcing Ontario's Safe Streets Act and asking troublemakers or the homeless to move along.
"We liked how that ended up," says Chan, sitting down in his Bright Pearl restaurant for an interview. "Our members were very happy with the work that the security guards did. They made a difference."
In fact, BIA members liked it so much they voted during their annual general meeting late last month to hire the security guards on a basis closer to full time. About $60,000 was allocated in next year's budget for the project. That falls short of the $76,000 charged by the security firm, but BIA co-ordinator Winnie Li said they might make do with reduced hours to make up the shortfall.
Winnipeg's downtown Business Improvement Zone (BIZ), which represents 1,400 businesses, has had red-and-black-dressed special constables, or Downtown Watch ambassadors, patrolling its streets since 1995, says marketing and communications co-ordinator Doug Darling.
The ambassadors act as the "eyes and ears" of Winnipeg police and go through at least one week of special police training for their jobs, he says.
Since last April, the ambassadors have special powers to pick up intoxicated people and either detain them for police or transport them to a detoxification centre using a former ambulance.
Darling says funding for the $1-million project comes from all three levels of government.
"We're really happy with the program and our ambassadors. They have a great relationship with local police and work together really well," he said.
In Calgary, Maggie Schofield, executive director of the Calgary Downtown Association, said hiring private security guards has never been an issue for its streets.
"It's something that we have talked about but there was never really seen as a need for it here. We're very happy with the job the Calgary Police Service does in working with our members," she said.
Earlier this month, Calgary police teamed up with Calgary Transit peace officers to set up a joint office downtown as part of a four-month pilot project.
The office is inside the Calgary Convention Centre with a front door on the LRT platform of the Centre Street transit station.
That's the same station where a Calgary woman was killed last January after she was taking local transit home from work late at night.
"It's a real sign (the new office) that everyone here is working well together now to promote safety downtown," Schofield said.
Vancouver city councillors voted this month to go ahead with an earlier decision to spend $872,000 on expanding private-security programs across the city as part of their Project Civil City initiative.
About $237,000 of those funds were for the Ambassador program of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA) and another $500,000 was to help other business groups fund their own programs, city BIA co-ordinator Peter Vaisbord says.
"Council had been looking at ways of dealing with street disorder and the homeless for quite some time. This was a way for council to partner with the different BIAs and work with that process," he says.
One of the oldest and largest projects is the DVBIA Ambassador program, where red-jacketed employees do everything from giving directions to tourists to watching suspected shoplifters for merchants.
The program started in 1994 and focused on providing hospitality to thousands of summer tourists, says DVBIA executive director Charles Gauthier.
In May 2000, DVBIA members voted to expand the program and make it year-round with a strong "eyes-and-ears" component.
Training manuals and software were developed and the Ambassador name was trademarked.
Gauthier says members decided to purchase the bikes, uniforms and two-way radios several years ago after a security firm was providing "sub-standard" materials.
"This is something we've worked hard to develop and our members believe it's an excellent program," he says.
"Feedback from the public has been overwhelmingly positive, too."
Ambassador employees are trained in first-aid and community security as they travel around the 90-block downtown area covered by the DVBIA, says Gauthier.
Late last month, they even intervened when a man tried to commit suicide.
"Our relationship with the police is excellent. We can sometimes be there faster and help them provide their services to the community. This works hand-in-hand with law enforcement," he says.
Five out of 19 other Vancouver-area BIA groups pay $2,500 per year and a $2-per-hour "upcharge" for licensing rights to use the program.
That still upset some of the BIA groups that had their own programs in place and contracts negotiated with private-security firms.
In the Vancouver suburb of Collingwood, BIA manager Diana Cousins says it has a great foot-and-bike patrol program that works out of the local community policing station. It also has a team of nine Guardians and one supervisor who provide services similar to the Ambassadors.
"They have a good relationship with everyone in the business community. We love them and the job they do," Cousins explains. "Why should we pay for the Ambassadors program when we already have our own that works so well for us?" Collingwood's Guardians are not related in any way to the Guardian Angels, a group that patrols some U.S. cities.
The DVBIA's Gauthier wasn't convinced. "At the end of the day, I don't believe their program is nearly as sophisticated and well-developed as ours," he says.
Vaisbord says the individual BIAs that chose to implement their own security program were mostly happy with council's recent decision. All of the groups that applied for program funding got approved.
"Sure, it might not have been as much money as they originally wanted, but council only has so much money to go around.
"At the end of the day there are all kinds of other things that need funding too. We're trying to keep everyone as happy as we can."
(David Hatton can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)