July 22nd, 2024

Downtown safety still a concern despite rising number of officers

By Justin Sibbet - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on June 19, 2024.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDjsibbet@lethbridgeherald.com

As knives are brandished and fires become lit, a sense of fear and uncertainty grips some who enter the downtown core.
At the most recent Downtown Lawlessness Reduction Committee meeting, numbers showing a high rate of crime in a select area downtown were presented.
According to the supporting documents, Landmark Apartments at 515 6 St. S. had 40 incidents over a three-month span just outside of its doors.
These incidents included weapons being shown, garbage strewn about and erratic behaviours resulting in residents being fearful when entering or exiting their home.
Shirley Heather-Kalau, a senior living in Lethbridge for the past 10 years, says the issues downtown have only grown during her time living in the city. As a result, she says changing habits and increasing vigilance have been necessary steps to ensuring her own safety.
“I don’t come (downtown) very often, but I make sure everything looks hunky-dory before I stop,” said Heather-Kalau. “It’s getting a little complicated for us old people.”
She says this often involves driving around and scoping out the area before deciding where the safest place to park is.
“I circle the block a few times to see if (squatters) move and if they don’t, I make sure to park far away.”
Heather-Kalau says she hopes changes can be made to make downtown safer and easier to navigate.
“I just wish they would straighten their streets out a little bit.”
Hunter Heggie, owner of King of Trade and chair for the Downtown Lawlessness Reduction Taskforce, says most issues happen in the evening or at night, but the sunshine does not automatically bring an end to crime.
“During the daytime, the biggest issue is open drug use and people hanging out in large groups, openly selling and doing drugs,” said Heggie. “I’m going to say that’s the largest problem.”
He gave a dire warning to residents who may feel as though the downtown core is a far cry from their suburb community.
“If you don’t see it around you, just wait. It’s coming to a neighbourhood near you if we don’t put a stop to it.”
Various efforts have been made to help solve the concerns of downtown residents and business owners. The Watch, for example, recently celebrated its fifth anniversary of patrolling the streets downtown. Heggie, however, says the organization is but a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to solving the problems in the area.
“We need police. We have a very small contingent of policemen downtown right now,” said Heggie. “The ones we have are doing a great job, they’re doing the best they can, but they can only do so much. We’ve got a big downtown and there’s lots of problems.”
Deputy chief of police, Gerald Grobmeier, says police are a part of the solution, but they are by no means able to fix everything on their own.
“Simply having more police officers isn’t going to resolve the issues that are going on downtown. We’re part of an answer, but we aren’t the answer.”
He says there are positives to take away though, such as an increase in quality candidates for LPS to recruit from.
“For the longest time, we had one person in recruiting at LPS. Starting last year, we’ve changed that to three people,” said Grobmeier.
He says this has enabled recruiting efforts to triple over the past year and expand its pool of potential recruits outside of Alberta.
“We’re getting applicants from as far away as BC asking to come to Lethbridge.”
He says this increase in productivity from the recruiters has enabled LPS to finally fill certain voids.
“This year alone we’ve already hired 19 new police officers and we’re not done yet. We’re anticipating anywhere between six to nine more on top of that. So, we’re looking at definitely hiring over 20 new police officers, which will get us pretty close to our maximum allotment.”
For those living or working downtown, Grobmeier says this increase in officers will help increase police presence.
“If we have more police officers, we can start to fill some of those sections that are vacant because we’ve had to make adjustments to make sure that our frontline, our first responders are full staffed.”
Heggie says the creation of new bylaws can effectively support those officers working in the area to flush out crime. But even with the vast number of issues, he says Lethbridge is moving in a positive direction.
“I do believe we are in better shape than we were, say, a year ago.”
He says the trend has been positive, in part, because of the City’s hard work and diligence.
“They want to help. They realize that if we allow the problems downtown, they will just grow and spread and it will be across the entire city,” said Heggie.
Grobmeier says it will take a large joint effort from the police, City and other organizations to finally free Lethbridge of the obstacles facing downtown, but work is well underway to achieving this goal.

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