COVID-19: How mainstream-media coverage of pandemic crime rates is getting it wrong

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      By Ashley Mollison, Marilou Gagnon, and Meenakshi Mannoe

      During the past few weeks, we have seen news stories and editorials on the rise of crime rates in B.C. They referenced a rise in what city officials and police departments describe as "crimes of opportunity": in particular, business break and enters, auto theft, mischief, and robberies.

      For example, at the end of April, CTV was reporting a 120 percent increase in business break and enters in Vancouver. In early May, CBC reported that break-ins had increased by 567 percent in  Victoria and Esquimalt and 120 percent in Kamloops.

      On May 19, Victoria's Times Colonist editorial board published a scathing indictment of, presumably, the people responsible for these types of crimes in Victoria and Esquimalt. That op-ed was titled “Looters and profiteers must be punished.” Three days later, the Vancouver Sun ran an editorial headlined “The Downtown Eastside is a war zone disaster—stop ghettoizing it”.

      Both editorials decried rising crime, referencing how supposed “criminal classes” are taking advantage of a national emergency to surf the “rising crime wave”.

      How do we address rising crime?

      The Times Colonist called for more severe punishment, citing Second World War-era measures adopted by Britain to address spikes in “looting and profiteering”: namely, the death penalty (see note at bottom). The Sun editorial called for “normalization” to make the Downtown Eastside a “real neighbourhood”.

      These editorials, alongside a number of pieces published recently across B.C. media, speak to wider stigma, myths, and anxieties about poor, racialized, and criminalized communities. These beliefs must be directly addressed if we want to halt the spread of—and prevent the real risk of death from—viral stigma.

      Media coverage has focused on rising crime without pointing out the impacts of poverty and inadequate income-security programs. That coverage highlights the need to restore court operations and to put people in jail, without pointing out the COVID-19 outbreaks in jails and prisons across Canada. It also critiques endemic mismanagement within the legal system without considering how someone in survival mode would decipher its complexities.

      As Pivot Legal Society’s 2018 report Project Inclusion points out, prohibition, stigma, criminalization of homelessness, racism, and economic policies keep people trapped in extreme poverty, which intensifies substance use and amplifies harm to individuals and their communities. The report analyzed social-services and criminal-justice systems that negatively impact health, safety, and human rights, and it illustrated how systems play out in people’s everyday lives, tracing the impact of criminalization to the laws, policies, and institutional practices that are shaping those experiences.

      Reviewing the media coverage, emphasis is placed on prolific offenders who are exploiting a mismanaged court system and taking advantage of a national emergency that has forced businesses to close. The subtext of these concerns blames inaction of courts and bemoans diversion efforts that are allowing people to remain in the community while awaiting trial or sentencing people to conditional releases in the community rather than in prison cells.

      Those tough-on-crime sentiments fail to grapple with the reality that prisons do little to alter root-cause issues, instead creating a revolving door for people who are denied access to basic resources (including income, health care, and housing) while they cycle through criminalization.

      It would be foolish to pretend that crime is not part of surviving homelessness and poverty, especially when survival needs are high and sources of income are lost. It would be even more foolish, however, to rely on Dickensian tropes and ignore the root causes of crime.

      COVID-19 has brought on economic collapse, and the distribution of government relief has been unequal and woefully inadequate for those who were, and still are, living in poverty and homelessness.

      The timing of recent media coverage is also noteworthy, given the simultaneous displacement of people living at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver and at Topaz Park and on Pandora Avenue in Victoria. In response to the COVID-19 public-health emergency, police were given the power to break up these three tent cities. A public-safety order rather than a public-health order was applied to an unhoused population deemed deserving of a criminal, rather than health, response.

      Media express outrage toward increased petty crime while virtually ignoring the fact that visibly poor and racialized people are subject to increased surveillance and targeting—and, in the case of homeless people, laws that criminalize their very existence. Additionally, despite government reports, hundreds have not been housed by government efforts and remain in parks, woods, and vehicles in and around those cities.

      Travis Lupick

      The impact of COVID-19 is not just shuttered businesses or overloaded courts: we have seen existing inequities exacerbated as B.C. comes to terms with two public-health crises alongside emergencies stemming from colonization and its impacts.

      We cannot deny the frustration of property crime, but in a world where inequality increasingly means illness and death, we must weigh frustration appropriately. In the midst of this pandemic, there have been incredible shifts towards mutual aid and generosity. Addressing rising crime rates takes communities coming together, showing compassion, and advocating for equitable distribution of resources so that people are not driven by desperation to steal for food and other basic needs.

      Media reports on increases in crime must move beyond statistics, provide context, and refrain from fear-mongering and posing “solutions” that will, inevitably, result in more harm.

      Note: The Times Colonist has since offered an apology and clarification for that outlet’s editorial, stating that the board does not advocate for capital punishment and that the original content has been edited to soften the language.

      Ashley Mollison is a PhD student in social dimensions of health at the University of Victoria; Marilou Gagnon (RN, PhD) is an associate professor in nursing at the University of Victoria and scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research; Meenakshi Mannoe (MSW, RSW) is a criminalization and policing campaigner at Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver.