How to build a safer Greater Victoria

Published as “Community safety is about more than police”

Dr. Trevor Hancock

21 September 2022

699 words

It is said that it takes a whole village to raise a child, not just the family and the school. Similarly, the most important message in the decades-old global Healthy Communities movement that I helped to create is that it takes efforts at all levels and across all sectors to create a healthier community. So while the health care sector is obviously needed, it is not the most important contributor to the health of a community.

These lessons apply equally to community safety. While a good police force is necessary, it is not sufficient to create safety; it takes the whole community to do that. And what is true of a healthy community – that it is built one home at a time, one street at a time, one block at a time and one neighbourhood at a time – is equally true for creating a safer community.

 As my last two columns have pointed out, community safety is a complex, indeed a ‘wicked’ problem, requiring a complex, sophisticated, long-term and comprehensive set of approaches. One of the global champions of this approach is Irvin Waller, an Emeritus Professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa. Professor Waller has helped shape policy and practice in a number of countries and at the UN, where he is renowned for championing the recognition of the rights of victims.

Above all else, Professor Waller emphasizes the science of community safety and crime and violence prevention. In blogging about his 2019 book, “Science and Secrets for Ending Violent Crime”, Waller has said “Study after study confirms that smart investments in preventing violence before it happens are more effective and cost effective than the status quo of police and prisons.”

Moreover, he adds, “Investing in effective violence prevention is more affordable and successful than policymakers think; a modest equivalent of 10 percent of what they spend on police, courts, and corrections will do it and often before the next election!”  

He emphasises not only being tough on crime but ‘tough on causes’: A 2021 Policy Brief he co-authored for the Canadian Municipal Network on Crime Prevention (CMNCP) notes “Solid prevention science identifies actions where violent crime has been reduced by 50% better than the status quo”. Scientifically proven prevention programs noted in the brief include engaging and supporting young males, supporting positive parenting and early childhood, strengthening anti-violence social norms, mitigating financial stress and improving the physical environment.

His work has greatly influenced work of the CMNCP, which was founded in 2006. The Network provides ready access to international and national evidence-based crime prevention programs and practices, mentorship, and support from community safety specialists and peer practitioners, as well as workshops and training. 

Regrettably, not a single municipality in the Capital Region is a member of this network, even though membership fees for all of them except Saanich are under $1,000 ($1,100 for Saanich). So protestations that municipal councils here are concerned with community safety and crime prevention are not matched by their actions.

One of the key steps emphasized both by Waller and the CMNCP is to create a ‘responsibility centre’ – some form of permanent community safety and crime prevention council, which in our case should be regional. It would bring together key players and stakeholders from across the region, including of course the police, but also schools, social agencies, businesses, community members and municipal governments. Together they would create a community safety and crime prevention plan and engage the whole community in that work.

Closer to home we have the work of Steve Woolrich of Rethink Urban, who wrote a series of columns on community safety in this newspaper in the summer of 2020. He is also the Vice-President of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) Canada. In his columns and in his work he stresses the importance of a ‘full spectrum’ approach linking safety, design, planning and health, engaging the community in what he calls a ‘circle of compassion’.

You will have an opportunity to hear from some of those mentioned here in an online community forum co-sponsored by Livable Victoria and other key partners, to be held on Monday October 3rd, 12 – 1.30 PM. Check the Livable Victoria website for details.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy


Community safety – a wicked problem with no simple solutions

Calling for the defunding of the police is an approach that is just as mistaken as calls for more policing

Dr. Trevor Hancock

14 September 2022

699 words

While community safety is about more than crime and violence, as I discussed last week, it is nonetheless where people’s minds often go. They are greatly assisted in that by the attention paid to crime and violence by the media, often amplified by what we might call the ‘law and order’ brigade, for whom the answer is more and better policing.

Now I am not about to join those calling for the de-funding of the police, an approach that is just as mistaken as calls for more policing; clearly, we need a police force that deals with crime and violence. But both the advocates of law and order and the advocates of de-funding fall into the trap that H.L. Mencken remarked upon many years ago, “For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat – and wrong!”

So instead of being simplistic, we need to recognize that community safety belongs in the category of ‘wicked problems’: “a complex issue that defies complete definition, for which there can be no final solution, since any resolution generates further issues, and where solutions are not true or false or good or bad, but the best that can be done at the time”, as Rittel and Webber defined them 50 years ago.

Obviously, the first way in which it is a complex issue that defies complete definition, as I discussed last week, is that the most important safety issues, from a public health perspective, are falls, transport-related accidents and self-harm and suicide. Intentional injury (assaults) are the fifth most common cause of injury-related hospitalization.

A second issue, which I also touched on last week, is that many assaults are either domestic/intimate partner violence or sexual violence. Statistics Canada reports that “women accounted for about 8 in 10 victims of intimate partner violence in 2020” and that 80 percent or more of such crimes are not reported to the police. So violence caused by strangers seems more common, and gets more attention, even though, as StatCan also reported, “4 out of 5 victims of solved homicides in 2020 knew their killer”.

A third issue is that assault itself is not the crime that is uppermost in people’s minds. A Victoria Police Department (VicPD) survey released in June found that when asked “Which one problem should VicPD pay closer attention to?” the top two issues were homelessness (18 per cent) and mental health (16 per cent). Then came breaking and entering (15 percent) and traffic offences (14 percent), while drug possession/use (9 percent) and drug trafficking (8 percent) were 5th and 6th; assault was in 7th place at 6 percent.

This survey also reveals another aspect of the complexity. As reported in this newspaper, “Victoria police spokesman Bowen Osoko said neither homelessness nor mental health problems are criminal matters. ‘That talks to the need for more services and support for people experiencing homelessness [and] more services and support for people with mental health [issues]’”, he said

A fourth problem is that a safe community is not just about data and facts pertaining to injury, but about perception. If we do not feel safe, if we are fearful, we may not go downtown, or use the parks, or go jogging in the evening. Many factors influence our perception of safety, including the media attention focused on crime, which can heighten fear; the design and lighting of our public spaces; the extent to which there are ‘eyes on the street’ and other factors.

Finally, any truly effective approach to creating a safer community must take a public health approach. Just as with cancer or heart disease, the best outcome is not to have to treat the problem, but not to have it in the first place. So while it is tempting to resort to ‘law and order’ to arrest and punish perpetrators, it would be better to ask why is this happening, and what causes that and so on, moving upstream to identify and remedy the underlying factors that contribute to a community being and/or feeling unsafe.

In my next column I will explore some of the complex issues involved in creating a safer community, and the evidence of what does and does not work.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Community safety is about more than crime 


Dr. Trevor Hancock

6 September 2022

699 words

One issue we are likely to see a focus on in the upcoming municipal elections is community safety, often focusing on crime and violence. But important though that is, community safety is about much more than that.

I recall, as a consultant working on the Healthy Cities initiative with the World Health Organization in the 1980s and 1990s, seeing the very different understanding of safety in Europe compared with North America.

In Europe, the Safe Communities movement was focused largely on preventing ‘accidents’ – what in public health we call unintentional injuries. But in North America the focus of safe communities work was largely on preventing crime and violence – one part of what we call intentional injuries.

From a public health perspective, unintentional injuries are by far the larger problem. In a 2017 report, the BC Injury Prevention Committee noted “injury is the leading cause of death for ages 1 to 44 years and the fourth-leading cause of death for all ages.” Based on data from BC Vital Statistics, in 2020 there were 863 deaths from unintentional injury, 381 deaths from intentional self-harm and only 24 deaths from assault – homicide, in other words.

Hospitalisation for injury in BC in 2019/20 followed a similar pattern. By far the largest reason was falls (over 20,000, more than half of which were in those over 75), transport-related causes (almost 4,000), self-harm (just over 3,000) and unintentional poisoning (which includes drug overdose – over 1,700); assault, at just under 1,000, was fifth, with well over half occurring in the 15 – 44 age group.

Based on all of this, and reflecting those injuries which place the largest burden of injury and cost on society, the Committee identified three provincial priorities for injury prevention: Seniors falls, transport-related injuries and youth suicide and self-harm. So if we want a safer community, we need to focus first on the priorities identified by the Committee.

Within the realm of intentional injury, the largest problem is clearly self-harm. This is not to diminish the importance of assault as a cause of injury and death, as well as the mental and emotional trauma it causes, which injury data does not collect.

But even within the category of assault, it is not random violence perpetrated on strangers that should be our priority, it is family violence and sexual violence.  A 2021 report from Statistics Canada noted “one-quarter of victims of police-reported violence are victimized by a family member”, while “two-thirds of all victims of family violence” are women and girls.

Moreover, this violence, as well as sexual violence, is hugely under-reported. A 2019 StatCan report noted 80 percent of spousal violence was not reported to police, while a 2014 report found 83 percent of sexual assault was not reported.

Moreover, community safety is not just about violence, or even about crime more generally, it is about feeling as well as being safe. For example, assault – especially random violence – is seen as much more frightening (and more newsworthy) than the vastly more numerous cases of falls and traffic accidents, which too often seem to be accepted as just part of the fabric of daily life or the price we pay for getting around. This tells us that perception and emotion matters when it come to safety, not just data.

People may feel unsafe for a variety of reasons, often having little to do with criminal activity or within the purview of the police. Indigenous people, people of colour, LGBTQ people and others may feel unsafe because of discriminatory attitudes, remarks or behavior that are not criminal. And of course dark streets and parks make many of us feel unsafe, while people are troubled and perhaps scared by those who are acting strangely, are disheveled and living on the street.

So if we truly want a safer community, we need to think quite broadly about what makes our community unsafe for people, and not get sucked into an understanding of safety that is too narrowly defined as simply a matter of crime and violence and law and order. That said, next week I will focus more on that issue, stressing that it is a complex problem with no quick fixes, no easy solutions.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Don’t blame Victoria for other governments’ failures

Dr. Trevor Hancock

30 August 2022

701 words

Shorten and add in more examples from out-takes

There is a concept in health promotion called victim-blaming – blaming smokers, for example, when in reality they are the victims of a sophisticated marketing campaign. The same concept applies to the tendency by many to blame the City of Victoria for problems such as homelessness, unaffordable housing, mental health and addictions problems and crime and violence. And with municipal elections coming up, its only going to get worse.

But in reality, these are not problems created mainly, if at all by the City, so they cannot be solved by the City. Both the causes and the solutions lie elsewhere, usually in federal and provincial policy decisions, sometimes in the actions (or inactions) of the courts, health professionals and others.

Let’s begin with mental health problems. In the 1980s there was a move to close psychiatric institutions, because they were seen as inhumane, and send people out into the community. This was a provincial decision, and was supposed to be accompanied by moving funding into the community. But by and large that did not happen, at least not anywhere near enough, leaving people who are already challenged to live on the streets, which is also inhumane.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we are talking about cancer treatment rather than treatment for people with mental health and addiction problems. Would we have closed the cancer treatment centres if we found inhumane treatment and sent the patients home to get community-based care? Would we then have under-funded the community-based care? Would we be OK with cancer patients living on the streets and not getting the care they need? Or would we fix the problem by addressing the inhumanity and providing quality care, rather than perpetuate it elsewhere. ?

Then there is the related problem of homelessness. We know from the March 2020 Homeless Count and Survey that almost two-thirds of people who are homeless had a substance use issue, well over half had a mental health issue and almost one-third an acquired brain injury. These are not people who should be living on the street. As Don Evans, then CEO of Our Place, wrote in this newspaper in October 2019 (before Covid) “It is almost impossible to stabilize someone and provide proper care until they have a safe place to lay their head at night.” So why are they homeless and on the street, where they are only made worse?

Well in part because of the closing of mental health faciltiies, as already mnoted, and in part because of a lack of suitable housing. As retired nurse Jo Vipond argued recently in this newspaper, “psychiatric housing needs to be provided for homeless people who are mentally ill”

As to camping in the parks, that came from two main factors: The B.C. Court of Appeal ruled in 2009 that people had a right to shelter in the parks if adequate shelter was not available to them, and then Covid made it necessary for people who were homeless to be sheltered in the parks until proper shelter could be provided. So it was the decisions of legal and health authorities that led to the situation in the first place, coupled with federal and provincial under-funding of social housing.

Clearly, the City of Victoria and other local municipalities did not create the policies and practices that have caused the problem, and it is unfair to expect them to fix the problem. This is not to say that local governments cannot be part of the solution, but they are not the ones who should be held accountable. It is not fair to blame the victim  – in this case, the City – for policy and program failures coming from other levels of government.

A recent national survey by . . . . . looked at people’s views on their downtowns, and found – surprise, surprise – great concern about poverty, homelessness, mental health and addictions. But as  . . . . , Mossop,  . . . . . of . . . . , commented: “It’s a national and provincial health crisis, it’s homelessness . . . It goes much deeper than what a local mayor can do.” Or as Randy Hatfield, Executive Director of the Human Development Council in St John NB, succinctly put it at a recent conference I attended: “The federal government has the resources, the provinces have the responsibility, the municipalities have the consequences.”

So let’s not blame the City of Victoria – or any other municiaplity – for the failures of the federal and provincial governments.

The City does not have the jurisdiction, power, authority or resources to fully address and solve these problems, although of course it can play a role in many of them

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

See also

We think B.C. downtowns are in decline: poll

High number of people working from home cited as a reason

Nathan Griffiths

Times Colonist, 16 Aug 2022

See also “Psychiatric housing needs to be provided for homeless people who are mentally ill