Cobourg Police Chief Holds Town Hall Style Meeting at Palisade Gardens in Response to Concerns from the Community.

In Local, Police Blotter

The Town Hall meeting was held on May 8, 2024 at Palisade Gardens retirement home on Chapel Street which is approximately two blocks from the encampment.

The recent theft, of a bench stolen from the front entrance of Palisade Gardens caught on video was the catalyst for the meeting.

There were approximately 50 people at the meeting, mostly residents of Palisade Gardens.

VandeGraaf started off by saying the encampment residents have made their home at the former Brookside Youth Centre located at 390 King Street East.

“They used to be at the west beach. And everybody on the south side of King Street had the same concerns you have.”

Petty theft, people wandering around at night, people and acting out.

Finally the encampment residents went to the former Brookside property.

“And then I get the invite to come speak to you great people – and now you’re suffering.”

“So I would like to say – welcome to the party.”

But stated firmly, “it’s not a joking matter.”

VandeGraaf said between 2023 and 2024 violent crime is increasing (Crime Severity Index).

“That was because of a homicide we had downtown and some other matters.”

Saying the violent crime was mostly people who commit assaults on people they know.

It is “not people walking down the street and robbing somebody who they don’t know.”

Theft and minor crimes like fraud have gone up this year.

“So, were in a space right now where we have a group of people who are homeless. Don’t let their tents and their community fool you. They’re homeless individuals.”

“Are their opportunities for them to rent an apartment?”

“Some”

But VandeGraaf added that their monthly income on welfare is approximately $1,700 a month.

If they share a place, the average rent in Cobourg is approximately $2,000 a month, “for a very small apartment.”

Even if you split it in half, a person is only left with $700.

“You go live in a tent, you pay no rent. You pay no heat, you pay no hydro.”

“Why?”

“Because of great people like you. Great people like you bring wood for the winter to keep them warm. I appreciate everybody’s compassion. We need more compassion in our world.”

“People like you bring trays of food. Churches provide weekly meals.”

VandeGraaf said, he’s been told many times that police should kick them out of the encampment.

“And I would love too.”

“But there is this decision that you’ve probably read about out of Waterloo Region.”

VandeGraaf told the group he didn’t go to law school, but, “it’s a bad decision.”

The Waterloo decision says that police can’t move anyone from an encampment, “unless I have a permanent place for them to go.”

“Doing such I’m breaching their Charter of Rights.”

For the last seven or eight years there has been a small group of people that have always lived in tents around Cobourg and in the winter months they stay with friends , known as couch surfing.

“Unfortunately we’ve had this conglomeration that’s become a community – that’s the reality.”

VandeGraaf said there isn’t any community small or large that doesn’t have some form of homeless encampment that he’s aware of, and Cobourg is no different.

But dealing with someone who is yelling and “acting crazy,” simply put, “there is no offence for that.”

“It’s annoying, it’s scary, it makes you feel afraid.”

But said his wife who has worked in the banking industry in downtown Belleville and Cobourg for the last 30-years said to him, that she doesn’t feel safe walking to her car anymore, “because it is that awkward.”

“She’s never been hurt, she’s never been confronted, nothing has ever been stolen, but she said it’s gone from being un-nerving to being, “I’m afraid.”

But the crime stats don’t show strangers being attacked, or seniors being aggressively panhandled or having their purses stolen.

“It doesn’t happen.”

But added, “Is your stuff being stolen from your house? Yup, we guarantee it.”

The Chief of Police said that he’s spoken to about five groups with the same concerns in the last three weeks.

After one of the meetings he went back to his Command Team and said, “we need a new plan in a week-and-a-half and the plan starts May 1.”

The Dynamic Patrol was initiated and part of it deals with zero tolerance for arrestable behavaior in the downtown.

“Over the last three days this week, there were four people arrested for their behaviour in the downtown.”

VandeGraaf also clarified about the simple possession of hard drugs.

“There is a law from the Federal Court that says you will not arrest somebody for simple possession of an illegal drug.”

“So if I have just enough for me to use, the Federal Crown Attorney says do not charge the person. We don’t want to tie up the courts with this small stuff.”

“As of May 1 I purposely, publicly stated I am challenging the Federal Courts decision.”

VandeGraaf said he’s already been contacted by Ministry of Attorney General of Ontario and Federal Ministry of Attorney General asking him why he has taken this position.

“I found a part in the Act when the community impact is greater than this, then this should not be used.”

“So we are arresting people for acting or doing something poorly in our community and if they have drugs on them.”

But police are not, “just grabbing them and shaking their pockets.”

Since initiating the Dynamic Patrols there have been three arrests for simple possession.

Police have also increased foot patrols through the encampment.

VandeGraaf also said police will be doing a “warrant sweep” soon but wouldn’t indicate when.

Even with 310 Division Street, VandeGraaf estimated that some will live homeless.

“They are going to continue to live in tents. They are going to continue to move their tents form there to somewhere else. And they are going to continue to borrow your stuff when they need it more than you.”

Unfortunately he said, there is very little he or his staff can do about it.

The costs associated with this is unbudgeted and will be from overtime.

“But at this point in time, there is no other way around it for us.”

“I’m not here today to say that you shouldn’t be afraid – that’s just stupid.”

“But I’m here to say that we recognize that you’re not feeling safe sometimes. But I also want to recognize that Cobourg is a safe place.”

“But it’s never going to be the way it was – those days are gone.”

VandeGraaf said in 1992 they started to defund other ministries.

Before that, there were facilities for people who needed them.

VandeGraf said he was the one of the very first police chief in the Province of Ontario to agree with defunding the police.

“Defund my budget and give it to every social service. I’ll know when you’ve done it when at 4:10 p.m., my people don’t have to deal with 15 calls that are not calls for police, but for mental health, they’re drug related health concerns, they’re not homeless concerns.”

Of the approximately 50 calls police deal with every day, approximately 35 are non-crime, are non-police related.

“It’s an overdose, it’s a person acting strange in the middle of the street. It’s stuff around homelessness and the encampment.”

VandeGraaf said the previous night, officers attended three overdoses where Narcan was given to save someone’s life.

When VandeGraaf first started his career he said if you saved a person’s life five times in your career, you were the unluckiest police officer. Now they do it every week. The week before the Town Hall meeting VandeGraaf said there were two overdose deaths in town.

One person asked after VandeGraaf spoke if people want to be compassionate and bring people at the encampment food.

“If you feel you need to help somebody up, my idea is give that money to the Food Bank. Because they have a system in place. Nobody is ever turned away from the Food Bank. Because the amount of perishable food we’re bringing down there (at the encampment) it’s not being eaten at the speed at what it’s getting delivered. Especially around Easter weekend.”

Another person asked about police arresting the person selling the deadly drugs.

People being released on bail conditions was also brought up as a question.

VandeGraaf said there was a time that if you broke the law with a serious crime and went to bail court, you weren’t released if you didn’t have an address. And you would remain in jail until your trial.

“Now they release everybody. Even if you don’t have an address.”

VandeGraaf said he believes the property at 310 Division Street is a good idea because it brings stable living conditions, “if it has the full wrap around services.”

The former retirement residence on Division Street will have single occupancy, double occupancy and you can bring your pet.

There will be a warming room and in a few years the two top floors will be for living with a kitchen and bathroom.

When it opens VandeGraaf said, “that will give a good section of people from the encampment a place to go.”

But adds, “not everyone is going to go. And there is no law that says they have to go.”

“A lot of people in the homeless community don’t feel safe in the shelter system.”

Starting on May 21, a pilot project of volunteers who are harm reduction volunteers who approached VandeGraaf and stated they understand that certain members of Cobourg aren’t making it comfortable for others.

“But in the interim, we’re going to be on the streets every morning starting at 6 a.m.”

Foot patrols are also being increased especially during evening events.

VandeGraaf also spoke about the shopping cart roundup taking place this week.

Police have a trailer and will be rounding up the shopping carts and taking them back to the stores.

“After that when my officers see you with a shopping cart, you’ll be arrested for possession property.”

Over the last 12 months the people who were pro-encampment and pro free use of drugs everywhere has “fractured into about four different groups.”

When VandeGraaf came to Cobourg in 2014 there were 5,500 calls for service. In 2023 there were 13,400.

Pete Fisher
Author: Pete Fisher

Has been a photojournalist for over 30-years and have been honoured to win numerous awards for photography and writing over the years. Best selling author for the book Highway of Heroes - True Patriot Love

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