Vancouver police say they have seen a 30 per cent spike in robberies of people in the streets and of convenience store employees since the coronavirus pandemic hit the city in mid-March.
Police Chief Adam Palmer revealed the uptick in heists at the April 16 meeting of the Vancouver Police Board, where he said targets have included 7-Eleven stores.
Knives have been the weapons of choice.
“We’re seeing people coming in [to convenience stores] with large knives, butcher knives, 12-inch blades and threatening staff at knifepoint,” Palmer told board members patched into the meeting via Zoom.
He described the person-to-person robberies as “strong-arms,” where a victim is either told to hand over money or other personal property, or physically assaulted to obtain the same.
Over the last year, police saw an average of 47 robberies per month in the city. From March 18 to April 14 of this year, police received reports of 61 robberies.
Const. Tania Visintin, a VPD media relations officer, said the 30 per cent increase in heists has predominantly occurred in the downtown business district.
Grandview-Woodland and Strathcona have also been hit hard, she said, but wouldn’t speculate whether the increase was connected to the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic has resulted in job loss for many in Vancouver. More than 15,000 businesses have temporarily closed to adhere to physical distancing measures.
“It wouldn’t be fair for me to speculate,” Visintin told Glacier Media in an email. “I can’t give a concrete reason. Whereas, with the commercial [break-and-enters], it was easier for us to say they were happening because shops were unattended.”
The chief said break-ins to businesses have surged 86 per cent since last month.
Downtown, Fairview, Marpole, the Kingsway strip and southeast part of the city were hardest hit, he said, noting police have caught thieves with bolt cutters and other tools.
In some cases, thieves have committed what the chief described as a “drywall break-and-enter.” That happens when a thief breaks into a business and then smashes through the store’s walls to get to an adjoining business.
“So people are being very creative, but we do have extra resources in the hot spots and we’re having very good success,” said Palmer, noting the recent arrests of 40 people connected to burglaries across the city.
Boarded-up businesses have become a common site in Vancouver, particularly along Robson Street, in Gastown and in Kitsilano.
Police have recommended business operators upgrade their locks, increase outdoor lighting and move merchandise away from windows, if shutters or plywood covering is not in place.
Meanwhile, police calls for service are down 12 per cent over the last month. Violent crime dropped four per cent and overall property crime, which includes break-ins to homes, decreased 14 per cent.
Over the last month, the chief said, some of his officers have contracted COVID-19 and others are off work because they are presumed to have been infected with the disease.
“In our job, the reality is that you do sometimes have to get in close proximity and you do have to touch people — and arrest people and sometimes fight with people,” Palmer told Glacier Media in an interview earlier this month. “And sometimes there’s blood and other bodily fluids. So there’s even more heightened levels of concern with COVID-19 in the background all the time.”