For Julie Vitick, manager of Brewster’s Pub & Liquor Store on King George Boulevard in Newton, everything changed after the death of Julie Paskall.
After the “hockey mom” was brutally attacked outside Surrey’s Newton Arena late last year – succumbing to her injuries shortly before New Year’s Eve – the local community rose up and demanded police action. Vitick said the Surrey RCMP responded, and has since become an ever-present sight in and around the area.
“Ever since that, you can see them walking around, they’re checking up on us,” Vitick said. “They’re communicating a lot more.”
Paskall’s death capped off a year in which homicides rose by 127% compared with 2012. In a press conference shortly after Paskall’s death, Mayor Dianne Watts promised action. For Vitick, however, whose store is only a few hundred metres from where Paskall was murdered, crime remains almost a daily occurrence. Attempted thefts, in which thieves try to dart from the store with whatever liquor they can carry, are the most common.
She said the recent beefed-up presence of the Surrey RCMP is a step in the right direction for a city with a crime rate well above the national crime severity index average.
“You can see now the RCMP is making an effort. Before, not really. Before, they dealt with us in such a way that I didn’t think that they were actually doing anything for us. But these days, the last few months, it’s been a lot better.”
Surrey RCMP declined to comment; but crime is by far the No. 1 issue in this fall’s municipal election. In a recent online survey that polled 495 Surrey residents, crime was the biggest issue for 51%. Half of Surrey’s residents (49%) believe the level of criminal activity in their community has increased in the past five years, and 53% say they fear becoming a victim of crime “a great deal” or “a fair amount.”
This is in stark contrast to Vancouver residents polled in the Insights West survey, in which housing was the No. 1 issue, with crime coming in below transportation, poverty, economic development and health care.
This fall, Surrey will elect a new mayor, and for the first time in close to a decade it will not be Watts, who recently announced her intention to seek federal office. Watts served as the city’s mayor for three consecutive terms, and according to Surrey respondents to the Insights West survey, her handling of crime ranked at the bottom of her achievements. Only 16% felt she and council did a “good” job at heightening public safety; only 2% said they did an “excellent” job at lowering crime.
In 2006, Watts initiated the city’s Crime Reduction Strategy to curb the problem. Various community outreach programs have since popped up, but statistics from the Surrey RCMP paint a vivid picture of the magnitude of the challenge. Virtually every crime category saw a percentage increase from 2013, according to second-quarter statistical numbers. This includes attempted murder (600%), sexual assault (30%), abduction/kidnapping (27%), motor vehicle thefts (45%), property crime (27%) and fraud (79%).
Barinder Rasode, a City of Surrey councillor who is also chair of the Community Safety Committee and is running for Watts’ vacant seat, said she agrees with Vitick.
“I think it really came to light with Julie Paskall’s murder at a public facility, at one of our rec centres where we knew that there were very significant issues of public safety in the Newton community.”
Rasode split from Watts’ Surrey First party partially because of the handling of Paskall’s death. Doug McCallum, who was unseated by Watts in 2005, is back again running for mayor, and said if elected, he has a comprehensive crime platform ready to go.
“Basically the strategy’s going to be to turn the public safety part of the city from a reactive situation to a proactive situation,” McCallum said.
McCallum wants to specifically target the unlicensed recovery homes in the city, which he believes are part of the root of the problem. The final front-runner for Watts’ seat is Linda Hepner, current councillor and Surrey First party member. Hepner was formerly the city’s manager of economic development, and she said putting more officers on the street is of vital importance to curbing crime. Hepner also said she’s waiting for the release of an independent report on policing from Irwin Cohen, RCMPresearch chair at the University of the Fraser Valley, expected sometime in October, before she rolls out a comprehensive plan for the city’s top election issue.
For Eugene Colobong, who has been running a dentistry practice for 18 years in a business complex across the street from the Newton Arena, crime is an obvious issue, but not one that has forced him and his wife to close up shop and move. He said there has, however, been a noticeable change lately, though his experience is quite different than Vitick’s.
“What I’ve seen is that they’re now focusing on [cleaning up crime in] Whalley. And they’re cleaning that up, but where are these people going? If you’re cleaning up an area, make sure you know where they’re going. And if you don’t know where they’re going that’s a bad thing.”
Colobong said he’s noticed more vagrants and street people in the past few months hanging around their parking lot and asking to use their washroom facilities.
“I’ve been here for over 17 years and this is what I’ve seen. Before we’ve only had the window broken once, and now lately it happens a lot.” •– With files from Patrick Blennerhassett