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An increase in random assaults highlighted by Vancouver police could point to larger issues that could be magnified by the pandemic, experts say.

Vancouver Police said in a series of social media posts last week that there were 1,555 “unprovoked assaults by strangers” involving 1,705 victims reported between September 1, 2020 and August 31, 2020. year.

“The majority of the victims were just going about their business: shopping, walking or visiting our city,” one article said.

Const. Tania Visintin said an assault is defined as random when there is no relationship between the victim and the suspect, and no event led to the attack.

“Which means there was no verbal communication or physical interaction,” she said. “It’s completely random. Out of the blue. “

Police began to notice the increase when officers compared their notes at morning meetings to discuss the night’s events, Visintin said.

“We need to collect this data,” she said. “And that way we know how we can use our resources to make the city safe. “

Experts say there could be various reasons for the increase in random assaults, including the COVID-19 pandemic.

Colton Fehr, an assistant professor in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, said COVID-19 has put “a lot of different and significant pressures” on people.

“And it’s understandable, I think, that more emotions come to the surface and in those types of circumstances, we might see more irrational types of actions, such as assaults,” Fehr said.

“It could be a speculative consideration.”

Statistics Canada said in a report released in July that although there had been “fairly widespread declines in many types of crime” in 2020, the country has seen an increase in “rates of various harassing and threatening criminal behavior” by report to 2019. He said these included uttering threats, stalking and indecent or harassing communications.

Statistics from three other major Canadian cities show different trends in the number of assaults, although none of them followed random or unprovoked attacks.

Toronto reported 17,323 assaults in 2019, up from 15,203 last year. So far this year, 15,737 assaults have been reported in the city.

Edmonton Police spokeswoman Cheryl Voordenhout said the city has seen a 3% increase in assaults in its downtown area this year compared to the same period in 2020. But the number of assaults citywide declined by about 4% over the same period. period.

Edmonton Police reported a seven percent increase in “mental health events” in the city center and a two percent increase citywide for the same period last year compared to 2021 , she added.

Earlier this month, Police Chief Dale McFee spoke about what is happening in the downtown area of ​​the city, saying police are working with the provincial department responsible for mental health and addictions.

“We need some support and some investment made in some of these spaces,” he said.

Const. John MacLeod of Halifax Regional Police said the city experienced 2,371 assaults in 2019, 2,379 last year and 1,906 this year.

“As you can understand, the number of reports varies from month to month and year to year due to many factors and as such we would not be able to speak to specific trends, ”he said in an email.

Vancouver Police have published examples of the kinds of unprovoked assaults officers have investigated.

In one case, a woman was walking with her elderly father when a girl who appeared to be around 12 years old punched her in the nose. The suspect has not yet been identified, police said on social media.

In another, a man was shopping when someone approached behind him and slit his throat, police said. Witnesses assisted the man, who had “significant injuries,” police said. A suspect has been arrested and charged.

Fehr said mental health issues could be exacerbated during the pandemic.

“So really, those who might otherwise be treated or might otherwise be able to cope with their conditions, they’re under a lot more stress in the context of a global pandemic,” he said.

“And one of the things that could happen, depending on the nature of his mental illness, they could do something that we would otherwise think is irrational, like these kinds of random assaults.”

Robert Gordon, professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology, said the assaults could be the result of a combination of different factors, including substance abuse, homelessness or mental health issues.

“It’s a pretty toxic cocktail and we shouldn’t be surprised. And it took the COVID situation, I think, to bring it to my head a little bit, because people are scared. Part of this fear increases, amplifies the problem of random attacks on the street. “

Visintin said that while COVID-19 could be a contributing factor, there is a larger picture that includes mental illness and addiction. Vancouver Police intend to continue collecting the data.

Fehr said the information is important because a lot can be learned from the numbers, and not just in Vancouver, but also by comparing it with other jurisdictions.

“This type of data is very valuable for learning to govern better in times that are akin to emergency situations,” he said. “There is a lot to be gained from collecting this data. “

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on October 27, 2021.

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