Penticton RCMP Supt. Ted De Jager took a different approach with this year’s forum, with a panel discussion rather than the one-man show last year.
But the new format may have been a little ambitious, with at least a third of those in attendance walking out after pre-submitted questions ran well over time in an event that already had a significantly lower turnout from the previous town hall event.
Still, De Jager was optimistic about the forum.
“The open mic, obviously I think it’s important. Some people did leave early, but I would have encouraged them to stay,” he said. “There’s still an opportunity for them to ask a question at coffee with a cop or in a more formal way. So they don’t have to wait until the next forum.”
Panelist Debbie Scarborough, executive director of the South Okanagan Women In Need Society, shared in De Jager’s optimism about the forum, though, offering a positive spin on the walkout.
“I tend to think that maybe they just had their questions answered,” she said. “Not that the fact that they realized that they realized they wouldn’t be able to have a question period, because we did. So there’s a reason for patience. But I thought it was great.”
De Jager said he felt the forum went well altogether, but did note some tweaks he would make to the format.
“I think next year we’ll do the same sort of thing, but the online questions are going to be a little bit more controlled,” he said. “Some of them are just too broad based and deal with issues that are way beyond the local police force and what we can do in our own communities.”
In his presentation and in the questions, De Jager suggested more of a harm reduction and socially supportive approach, pushing back against the tough-on-crime sentiment prevalent in the community, particularly when it comes to vulnerable populations.
“We look at that and a lot of people, from their perception, see crime. It must be crime that’s happening with those people,” he said.
“Quite frankly, I don’t lose a lot of sleep over the people that we’re talking about,” he added. “I do lose sleep over people that are not homeless that are prolific offenders, that are career offenders and career criminals, that are not stealing change out of the cupholder of an unlocked car, but are stealing a $40,000 or $50,000 tractor from a winery.”
De Jager said those who are marginalized, homeless or facing addictions are the people police intend to team up with other agencies on. And that was a theme of the night, with the forum involving panelists from various agencies that deal with vulnerable individuals.
The panel included Scarborough, Pathways Addictions Resource Centre executive director Daryl Meyers, School District 67 Supt. Wendy Hyer, Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen vice-chair Manfred Bauer, Interior Health manager of mental health and addictions Kevin Fraser and De Jager.
But the questions asked of the panel didn’t quite strike that balance. Though the short question-and-answer period at the end did see more participation from other panelists, the vast majority of the questions from the pre-submitted portion of the night were applicable to De Jager, with little opportunity to hear from the rest of the panel.
That said, there were questions that made their rounds with some of the other panelists.
Meyers said she has seen changes from police when dealing with vulnerable populations, particularly since the overdose crisis took hold of the province in recent years.
“People weren’t calling 911 when there was an overdose for fear that they would be arrested or something else would happen,” she said.
“But now word is getting out there that it’s OK to call 911, that the RCMP are there to help you, to assist you, to take you to where you need to go, and they have been.”
Speaking after the event, Scarborough said she was happy to see some questions that leaned toward harm reduction. Gerry Neilsen asked whether there was room for something like a supervised injection site in the community, pointing to the successes of Portugal in its progressive drug policies.
“Really good to see what people were concerned about, like what the concerns were,” Scarborough said. “There’s more compassion and empathy for those vulnerable sectors. It shows the fact that overdose prevention site and maybe a safe injection site, maybe people want it. That was good to hear, obviously.”
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Dustin Godfrey | Reporter
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