Who should pay for extra security?

The growth of private security in Chilliwack has been steady over the past decade. So it’s not surprising there’s some pushback from the people who are paying the bill.

Where once we might have had a kindly commissionaire at the door with a helpful smile, we have patrols by individuals in tactical gear driving Hummers.

This increased presence has brought increased cost. And for a business in the downtown, it’s easy to understand some of the frustration.

First, they pay taxes, just like the rest of us, which helps pay for police. But they also pay into the Downtown Business Improvement Society (BIA), where money is drawn for security. On top of that, individual businesses (like banks) might opt for additional security.

From a business perspective, this might seem a good investment. Several years ago, when private security was initially discussed for the downtown, the argument was that the safer environment would encourage more traffic. Chilliwack wasn’t alone; BIAs across the country were dipping into funds earmarked for street beautification and promotional events and using the money for enhanced security. Some began by hiring “ambassadors” to patrol the streets, offer tourists directions and answer questions.

But as the environment changed, so too did the response. In Chilliwack, the change has been dramatic. The number of homeless on the street and the proliferation of opioids has added a dimension to downtown security that didn’t exist years ago. It’s meant an unprecedented presence that has been welcomed by business owners and the public alike. It’s brought joint patrols with city bylaw officers, outreach workers and even RCMP.

But it’s also been a victim of its own success. As of July 1, the downtown BIA has moved away from the roving patrols it once did, adopting instead a more affordable and manageable response-based approach.

The change has rekindled debate about security and whose responsibility it should be.

There are some who might argue that this is a job for the police: we already pay taxes, why should we pay more?

But it’s not that simple.

The additional 10 RCMP officers hired by the city added $1 million in annual costs.

And even if we could agree that even more officers were needed, I’d suggest this is not the best use for them. As a deterrent, they’re welcome, however a police officer on every street corner would take them away from the tasks they’ve been trained (and continue to train) to do.

Additionally, there is only so much they can do. They can’t arrest people for being homeless, for being mentally unstable, or making others feel uncomfortable.

The more practical approach is to pay for that additional layer of security, leaving police available to respond, investigate and prevent more serious crimes.

The challenge is finding a structure that works – one that harnesses the multiple disciplines reflected in the complexity of the issues. It should be a team approach, where health and outreach workers, supported by security make routine patrols and respond to concerns, calling in police when necessary.

It should be led by – and paid for – the city, giving it authority, accountability and flexibility.

And it should be part of the broader strategy aimed at the dealing the complex social issues this city faces.

Granted, this is outside the traditional mandate of a municipal government.

But challenging times call for a change in approach.