As CKNW explores the issue of violent crime in Surrey as a part of our What’s at stake series, we thought it would be worth checking in with the city’s former Mayor who has seen this all before.
Dianne Watts who led the city from 2005-2014 and is now a federal Conservative MP joined Drex this evening to reflect on some of the challenges the city is facing.
LISTEN: Former Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts reflects on the challenges of violent crime
Watts says one of the biggest challenges in tackling the city’s crime problem is the adaptability of criminals. She says police and leaders need to be constantly evolving tactics to keep up with the underworld, something her administration faced during her term.
“The absentee owners. They would come in there and set up grow ops, and we would start holding owners to account, and so then the drug dealers and grow up guys and clandestine labs ended up buying the houses. And so you need to make sure you are evolving with the times.”
She says part of staying ahead of the game is adapting to the changes in crime. Dealers aren’t pushing pot so much these days – new drugs are on the street like Fentanyl and w-18 are now taking over the streets.
She adds the cyclical nature of crime means that battling the criminal element can be something like a game of whack-a-mole: knock one down, and another pops up, take one group off the street and another fills its place.
But she says it’s not impossible, noting that the violence is coming from a small group of people.
“You look at a city of over a half a million of people, it’s a very small percentage causing the problem. And they move around the Lower Mainland.”
Sitting in the hot seat
Watts says as mayor, when word of another shooting comes in the first thing that went through her mind was “is the community safe.”
The next was wanting to get a handle on the details of the circumstance. She says police leadership will phone the Mayor soon after to break down the details.
“I would usually get a call from the RCMP to advise me and be briefed on the situation and then we would have that discussion then and there.”
Watts says in her time, part of the battle was looking to other jurisdictions to try and learn from their successes.
“The very first thing I did, is we looked at best practices around the world. And we looked at New York, and we went to the UK, and that’s where the crime reduction strategy came into play. And it’s still there, it’s a living evolving document.”
But she says tit can be difficult for municipalities who have limited resources, and must rely on other levels of government for funding. Watts says the challenge is getting to the table and hammering out a way to pull the elements together to create answers like the Wrap program which works to separate youth from the gang life.
Watts says Surrey faces big challenges as a growing city, something she calls a “double edged sword.”
On one hand, growth is good and keeps the city resilient and youthful. But she says having a city that adds up to 1,200 new residents a month, a third of them under 19, comes with its own problems.
She says there are cultural hurdles to overcome as well. During her time, a spate of murders of South Asian men focused the issue on that community.
“Again we’ve seen a number of drive by shootings, and again really young predominantly South Asian men. And we have to make sure the parents have the support they need, because as any parent you want to make sure your child is okay. But in the same context you’re not going to turn your child over to the police.”
She says part of the challenge for the city’s current leadership will be coping with that issue, and drilling down to solutions that can keep young men in the community out of trouble.