Crime is up along Scott Street, but it’s still safe to shop downtown

Sam Odrowski

Since the start of 2019, there has been a notable spike in property crimes along Scott Street as well as a larger number of people loitering who are impoverished and suffer from addictions.

Due to this increase, some town residents have the perception it is no longer safe to shop downtown and store owners have seen a dramatic drop in business, month after month.

Town councillor and council’s BIA representative Douglas Judson would like to stress to the public that it’s still safe to shop on Scott Street and measures have been taken by the OPP over the last two months to address concerns.

“We’re alive to the fact that there are some social issues at play and a little bit of education and awareness around what some of those are can help to dispel some of the fear complex that some people have built up,” he remarked.

“I think the reality is that our community is undergoing a lot of shifts and we’re seeing a lot of demographic flux.

“We’re seeing different social challenges, and as a result, we’re seeing different forces at play in our social sector–and some of that is downtown,” Coun. Judson added. “That’s not unique to Fort Frances.”

He said the town has come a long way in positioning its downtown as a gathering point for people of all ages, with Rainy Lake Square events held each week, various gatherings, and the recent Pride Week celebrations.

“I live my life in downtown Fort Frances for the most part and I don’t feel unsafe there,” Coun. Judson explained.

“I just recognize that part of being a growing community sometimes is growing pains and is seeing perhaps a wider spectrum of society than we have before.”

“From the Grind Up” owner Ben Morelli said he’s noticed a serious decline in business since the beginning of May and attributes it to the “harmful rhetoric” that discussions around the safety of downtown have devolved into.

“Not only at the expense of the disenfranchised community members that it directly affects but also to the local business community that’s claiming to help try to solve this problem,” he remarked.
“Creating a culture of fear in the town damages their bottom line and it damages my bottom line and it makes people fearful to come downtown.”

“As far as steps that have been taken, I think they have been making commendable steps, I think everyone has–the mayor has, the BIA has,” Morelli added.

BIA member Nathalie Donaldson is one of the people representing Shops on Scott on social media and is the one responsible for the posts updating people about these problems downtown.

“I’ve seen people saying on social media that this is ‘fear-mongering,’ and we’ve had lots of people saying that they’ve never felt unsafe downtown,” said Donaldson, who also works at Betty’s.

“While that’s great that some people feel safe, it’s really not helpful because the reality is that people are in Betty’s nearly every day telling us that they have felt uncomfortable or intimidated, or been asked for money, or insulted,” she added.

“While some say fear-mongering, I say that facing the reality of multiple perspectives is the only way to ensure we can offer solutions for everyone to feel comfortable. We’re not going to invalidate the feelings of people who have had bad experiences just to preserve the downtown’s reputation,” stressed Donaldson.

“We’re facing it head-on. OPP, store owners, service providers, mayor and council, and town staff–including bylaw officers–have been listening and are working hard at responding, and it’s getting better already thanks to their dedication,” she added.

While a common response to the issues downtown has been that these social problems are not unique to Fort Frances and are happening everywhere, Donaldson said this attitude somehow implies that it’s not such a big deal.

“That doesn’t mean we need to accept it; it doesn’t mean we don’t talk about it or that we don’t try to fix our problems,” she remarked.

In terms of violent crimes that impact physical safety, the rates of occurrence from January to May of 2018 compared to January to May of 2019, are down overall, according to a Fort Frances Police Services Board report.

Over the same period, there has also been a 76.9 percent drop in instances of drug crime.

On the other hand, a growing number of issues arose from January to May of 2019 with a 61.9 percent increase in thefts under $5,000 compared to last year.

The theft under $5,000 charges are mostly for shoplifting and climbed from 42 to 68 instances, meaning there was 26 more than during the same period last year.

“That’s significant compared to the spikes we saw in other crimes,” Const. Jim Davis noted.

When looking at the increase in petty thefts, he said addiction would certainly be a concern.

“It’s fair to say it’s related to drug trafficking or drug trade,” Const. Davis remarked.

United Native Friendship Centre alcohol/drug worker Tanya Foy-Hunter said it’s a mix of addiction and mental health problems, coupled with a lack of affordable housing.

Meanwhile, the OPP has partnered with store owners for the co-ordinated use of security cameras so now everybody who is downtown is under surveillance, which has helped greatly in solving crimes.

“It has worked really well and we did get really positive feedback from the community in terms of registering their security cameras, so we know who has them,” Const. Davis noted.

Since implementing the program, OPP officers have taken snapshots from the surveillance footage to share around the detachment which has been helpful for identifying suspects.

“Everyone deals with different people at different times so we’ve had a really high success rate,” Const. Davis remarked.

However, BIA president Doug Cuthbertson said many of those who are caught shoplifting are released too easily and able to reoffend.

In terms of foot patrols, Const. Davis said those have been equally successful for making the community feel safe, engaging with community members, and deterring criminal behaviours.

Since starting the initiative, officers have spent over 88 hours in the downtown core and overall incidents of theft have dropped significantly.

“There’s been two main businesses that were affected by the shoplifting in the Scott Street area,” Const. Davis said.

“In one of them we’ve seen a 50 percent reduction in the shoplifting and in the other business we’ve seen an 87.5 percent reduction.”

“I think that’s in the win column for us . . . just by engaging that specific issue, we’re seeing results that are really positive for the community,” he added.

The officers do the foot patrols sporadically, as they have time in their day which is a better deterrent then having a schedule, according to Const. Davis.

Without a set routine, those who partake in criminal activity won’t know when law enforcement could be present.

Scott Street stores, meanwhile, have taken individual measures such as greeting everyone who enters the store, requesting they leave their backpacks at the front, and asking customers to remove face masks or facial coverings.

Greeting everyone helps staff with making mental notes of physical descriptions or anything that could identify customers if a crime occurs.

Store owners have also been reminded that they shouldn’t be afraid call 9-1-1 and need to do so when a crimes take place.

The public is also encouraged to do the same if they see any criminal or suspicious activity.

“If they are unsure [if they should call], they can alert a business owner who could maybe keep an eye on it for them. And if the situation escalates, then the business owner can call the police, too,” noted Donaldson.

If anyone at any time feels unsafe or uncomfortable for wherever reason while shopping downtown, Donaldson would encourage them to notify staff at Betty’s or any other store on Scott Street, who will help and notify the police.

Donaldson noted that the police are not legally allowed to just stop people on the street for any reason they feel. Police need probable cause to search backpacks or ask for I.D.

She said the requirement for the OPP to stop people on the street is a fairly recent development of which the public should be aware.

“After these people are stopped, they find out their names and for a lot of them, there are warrants out for their arrests for not doing court appearances, not paying fines,” noted Betty’s owner Blair Anderson.

“There’s some bad actors out there–really bad.”

Going forward, Const. Davis said they will continue to monitor the downtown core and any other spikes in crime to ensure the needs of the community are being addressed.

“We don’t want the perception to be, ‘Okay, that’s dealt with, so we’re not going to do it anymore,'” he explained.

“If foot patrols are working and it makes people feel better, we will continue on doing that kind of stuff.”