A few weeks ago, as the lockdown that would keep British Columbians at home was beginning, store owners in Vancouver reported break-ins and thefts.
Some of them opted to board up and wait for the moment when all components of the economy – including adequate security – would be present in our daily lives.
As our usual routines slowly return from the sluggishness of the COVID-19 pandemic, Research Co. and Glacier Media looked at current perceptions of criminal activity across British Columbia. The survey outlines specific parts of the province where the perception of a worsening state of affairs because of COVID-19 is patent, disturbing findings on questions related to theft and racism, and some shifts on what residents perceive as the triggers of criminal activity.
As an issue that requires attention, crime is nowhere near the levels currently observed for health care, the economy, the pandemic and housing. We would have to go back a few years to a time of constant shootings in Vancouver and Surrey to find public safety at or near double digits in British Columbia’s collective mindset.
Still, across the province, almost two in five residents (38%) believe that the level of criminal activity in their community has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Roughly the same proportion (37%) report no change from what things were like before March, and 13% think crime has decreased.
One region is dramatically responsible for pushing the provincewide average up. Almost half of Metro Vancouverites (47%) claim crime has increased during the pandemic. No other area comes closes to this level of perceived trouble. While about a third of residents of Vancouver Island (32%) and the Fraser Valley (30%) think lawlessness has risen, the proportion drops to 21% in southern B.C. and an impressively respectable 4% in northern B.C.
The nuisance of unwanted telephone messages, which we discussed in September 2019, remains, but this time with the added twist of blackmail. Since March, one in five British Columbians (20%) say someone attempted to extort them in an email or text message, and 16% say someone attempted to extort them by phone.
In Metro Vancouver, the proportion of residents who have experienced other crimes is distressing. Roughly one in four Metro Vancouverites report that, since March, someone broke into their workplace or office (25%), someone broke into or stole something from their car (24%) and someone broke into or stole something from their home (23%). Other regions of the province have been luckier, and more effective, in avoiding these incidents.
The other issue that is decidedly worrying is related to race relations. Across the province, 11% of British Columbians say someone directed racial slurs at them. The proportion of residents who have endured this behaviour climbs to 24% among those of East Asian and South Asian descent, and drops to 7% among residents of European ancestry.
We have seen several examples of racial tension that was exacerbated by COVID-19, particularly in the form of actual assaults and possible hate crimes caught on video. What Metro Vancouver is experiencing is, thankfully, fundamentally different from what is transpiring in the United States at this time.
Still, the numbers are perturbing. Our polling has shown that a sizable majority of British Columbians can analyze the pandemic and tell the difference between a country and an ethnicity. Regrettably, some individuals who roam our streets are not part of this group, and blame local residents for the misfortune brought by the pandemic – a misfortune that all of us have been forced to adapt to.
When asked about what is contributing to the current situation related to crime in their communities, there is some movement. As was the case in August 2019, British Columbians are more likely to place blame on addiction and mental health issues (45% then, 43% now) and gangs and the illegal drug trade (32% then, 38% now).
There are significant spikes in the proportion of residents who perceive other factors as contributing to crime, including poverty and inequality (up 13 points to 36%), an inadequate court system (up 12 points to 24%) and lack of values and improper education of young people (up 14 points to 28%).
While blaming crime on immigrants and minorities is ranked at the bottom of the eight issues tested, it went from 9% to 19% as a factor for criminal activity. Men (34%) and British Columbians aged 35 to 54 (38%) are more likely to feel this way than women, people aged 18 to 34 and baby boomers.
The pandemic appears to have provoked a spike in criminal activity in Metro Vancouver. Other areas of the province have been spared. British Columbians continue to look at drugs as the main generators of criminal activity, but the proportion of residents who are losing faith in concepts like equality, fairness and education could signal the start of a depressing trend.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted from May 8 to May 17, 2020, among 1,600 adults in British Columbia. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in British Columbia. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.