Why is it that even though crime rates are falling, the fear of crime in a lot of places is not?
Thankfully, there are ways to change this. According to the 2014 Chilliwack Quality of Life Survey, where you live, how old you are and your gender all determine your perception of crime. Presuming that perceptions of crime are related to our sense of safety, it is an important consideration that may affect what people feel free to do in their community. The survey found the people living in Garrison Crossing, for instance, are less concerned about crime than people living in downtown Chilliwack.
The most obvious solution to perceptions of crime might be a more visible police presence. Police presence does make a difference. On Canada Day at Harrison Hot Springs, I counted five RCMP officers strolling the promenade, chatting and being part of the fabric of the event. Ironically their presence ensured there was no need for them. This is the story of prevention. Without the RCMP, a few people who have consumed too much alcohol could make a crowd in close quarters uneasy. This could lead ruin a great event.
Last week, Chilliwack held a “Party in the Park.” This event draws large numbers of people of all ages to the downtown core. It is a good time for children, but it is also a way for the community to lay claim to these public spaces. When you travel in Europe, you see public spaces like this become an evening gathering place for community members. Here, we tend to live in our homes, cars and stores. We drive past these public spaces – Salish Park, the new park at five corners, and the park at Central Elementary. In downtown Chilliwack, public places are often empty or occupied by small groups of people. There isn’t a sense of the commons the way there is in other communities and cultures. In contrast, the Vedder Trail is an active commons with people on it from dawn to dusk, which could be linked to the greater sense of safety in Garrison.
I believe there are steps we, as individuals, can also take to change our sense of safety. One of the best things we can do to feel safe in our community is to actively participate in it. A man who, for the sake of anonymity we will call Don, tells me that he walks around a local park with his dog. He notices people, including a man who trolls his alley every day picking up cans. Don has taken the time to talk to this man, has found out a few things about him – let’s call him Bill , and they have built a bit of a relationship. Some people might find a scavenger to be scary. Don sees Bill as performing a service. Recently he noticed that Bill’s bike pedals were falling off. Don went to Walmart, bought a new bike and took it to Bill’s house. This unexpected act of charity caught Bill off guard. As you can imagine, this had a positive effect on both men’s sense of community.
Getting to know the people in our community, being involved, contributing to it, are among the best things we can all do to feel safer in it.
Dr. Robert Lees is the Community Psychologist for the Ministry of Children and Family Development in Chilliwack.