Public safety is an emotionally and politically charged issue, but how much cause for concern is there really and what should be done about it?

We read the horror stories daily.

In New Westminster, B.C., a community member was randomly attacked with a stun gun.

Over in Calgary, a man strode around bludgeoning whomever he came across.

In Toronto, two transit workers were chased by a man wielding a syringe and a woman died after being set alight on a bus.

Longtime CBC journalist and editor Michael Finlay was among those impacted by the chaos, losing his life to a random assault.

Violence and street disorder seem all around us.

Public safety has become a hot-button issue across the country, and for many people, the tension involved in walking to the store or riding the bus has never been greater.

But is this level of concern justified?

Creating safer communities requires political will, long-term commitment and improved collaboration among stakeholders and levels of government, writes @SpencerVanCity #cdnpoli #bcpoli #vanpoli #bchousing

The Bad

From 2017 to 2021, the homicide rate jumped almost 20 per cent across Canada, with 2021 tying 2005 for our highest rate over the last 20 years.

Transit assaults have also increased.

In Toronto, violent incidents against riders increased by nearly 50 per cent last year.

Saskatoon also recorded more transit violence in 2022 than in the previous four years combined.

Edmonton saw calls to violent incidents rise by 53 per cent.

Meanwhile, in B.C., attacks by strangers in Vancouver increased by 35 per cent from 2019 to 2021, and the provincial capital Victoria saw a 21 per cent increase in its violent crime severity index — a value based on the volume and seriousness of violent crime in the city.

With numbers like these, you might see why nearly half of British Columbians now fear becoming victims, while six in 10 Canadians are increasingly vigilant in urban settings.

The Not So Bad

But perspective is needed before we get carried away.

Nationally, the violent crime rate is lower than it was every year from 1998 to 2008, with this stretch being even longer in major population centres like Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg.

While the homicide rate has risen, Canada still has one of the world’s lowest, and homicide does not account for even half of a half of a per cent of our violent crime.

Not to mention, most violence is committed by offenders who know the victim, such as intimate partners, not strangers.

Aside from violent crime, property crime has dropped and in 2021 fell to its lowest level in a quarter century, with major cities like Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto seeing especially large drops.

So why does it seem like much of Canada is becoming the Wild West, descending into lawless chaos?

Studies show that half of all news stories are about violent crime, despite it making up a small portion of all crime. Violent crime is also more likely to appear among the top stories, reflecting the media maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Attacks against strangers are especially unsettling because they challenge the idea that living clean and hanging around good people keep us immune from crime.

Politicians across the country, such as Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim and Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante, have played along, embracing the issue and promising to keep voters safe in exchange for votes, while Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre has blamed “woke liberal NDP mayors” for rising crime across Canada

This partisan goal-scoring is feeding into the panic, leading to a self-sustaining cycle that keeps people on edge, yet unable to look away.

Now what?

Not to say it is all just a game of politics and news media, though.

There are still far too many lives impacted by violence, and with some forms of violent crime on the rise, it is crucial to act now before those really do get out of hand.

In addition to tightening access to bail for violent offenders, options for mental health and substance use treatment must be strengthened within the criminal justice system.

One possibility is the increased use of therapeutic bail, which delays sentencing while people undergo treatment, potentially avoiding criminal convictions if they successfully complete the programs. Therapeutic approaches have been shown to be effective, as has mental health treatment in prisons when dedicated programs are provided. However, specific data on therapeutic bail in Canada is limited.

Not only are offenders prevented from a rapid return to the streets, they must demonstrate commitment to improving their mental health, along with the capacity to succeed in treatment.

Another is the creation of mental health units for those in custody, along with a detailed review and action plan to address the gaps making the current system of incarceration debilitating for people with serious mental health issues.

These approaches must all be coupled with an ambitious provincial housing strategy, as well as a return of federal government support for non-market housing to pre-1990s levels. When people have to live outside or take shelter on transit — distressed and without stable shelter from which they can pursue recovery — more problems arise in public spaces.

Simply loading up on law enforcement is not enough. Creating safer communities will require political will, long-term commitment, and improved collaboration and info sharing across a wide range of stakeholders and levels of government.

In the meantime, please keep calm and carry on.

Spencer van Vloten is a nationally published writer and community advocate. He is a recipient of the BC Medal of Good Citizenship, Vancouver Excellence Award, and is the Rick Hansen Foundation School Program’s Difference Maker of the Year. You can find more of his work at SpencerV.ca or follow him on Twitter at @SpencerVanCity.

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This is all still about "What do we do when we catch people doing something bad". It's a bit like arguing about how we should design homeless shelters or fund food banks. I'm more interested in figuring out how to reduce crime, homelessness and poverty in the first place. Although that's less a matter of "figuring out" and more about political will.

The right in particular have to be hard on crime because they don't WANT to reduce any of the problems that increase crime in the first place (which are mostly the same problems causing homelessness and foodlessness). Reduce inequality, reduce precarity, and all this stuff will improve . . . but then some hyper-rich people might have less money.