'Can't arrest away addiction'

About 150 residents showed up for the Penticton RCMP’s annual community policing forum Tuesday night at the Lakeside Resort, amid a perceived surge in property crime and street problems.

The turn out certainly wasn’t anywhere near the 1,000 people who have signed the ‘Make Penticton Safe Again’ petition on Change.org, but Supt. Ted De Jager was peppered with more than two dozen questions in written form and from people lining up at the mic.

“The number one question I’m going to get tonight is ‘what am I going to do about homelessness and what am I going to do about drugs and drug use?” said De Jager. “That’s not a solution I’m going to answer tonight. That’s something society is going to have to continue to work on fixing the biggest drug epidemic that has ever hit this county.”

Over 70 people have died of opioid overdose in the South Okanagan in the last two years, De Jager told the audience.

“I say that is a pretty staggering statistic.”

De Jager referred to the "Make Penticton Safe Again" petition, debunking claims it made about crime being up 200 per cent.

“The crime rate in Penticton has remained flat. What has changed is how we report crime and how Stats Can takes in the data as of December 2018,” he said.

But if the perception is out there that crime is way up, that is something he said he wanted to deal with.

“I can assure you that I can arrest that person who is addicted and take them over to the courthouse and they will be out within an hour. It’s just not a solution.”

He conceded that addiction is driving crime in Penticton, with 70 businesses reporting break-ins for the first quarter of 2019.

But De Jager warned police can’t simply arrest the city out of the throes of addiction.

“It isn’t illegal to do drugs, it is illegal to be in possession. We can’t arrest away addictions, we as a society need to find a solution,” he said.

One resident urged police to start cracking down on street people.

“You say go after the drug dealers and we say go after druggies with stolen goods. If he has a cart, take it, if he has a bike, take it. Your stats are skewed because nobody calls you anymore,” said the man.

De Jager explained the police must act within the law, which limits their ability to do anything even if they know a prolific offender is riding on a stolen bike or has stolen items on him.

“If we can’t prove it is stolen, he gets to keep it. That’s the law,” he said.

De Jager added the old-school beat cop is coming back.

“In the next week or two, our downtown and youth liaison officer Const. Dave Dixon will be boots on the ground. His entire beat is downtown.”

The detachment is also pledging to bring back regular media briefings that will include a crime map.

“In Penticton, 85 per cent of crimes are committed by the same 40 to 50 prolific offenders,” he said. “We aren’t working on that drug addict shooting up in the back alley. We want to arrest the drug dealer giving them the drugs.”

De Jager was faced with a variety of stories from residents about being broken into, being assaulted, or students at Pen High finding needles.

“I’ve lived here all my life and I love our community but what I’m seeing at our recreation centres, our beaches and parks is very scary,” a resident said. “My question to you is: are at-risk people more entitled to occupy our public places?”

De Jager asked residents to help them by reporting suspicious activity and make sure homes and businesses are locked up each night. He also encouraged people to continue giving feedback on ways they think could help reduce crime.

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