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Private security in LA business areas lowers crime

February 26th, 2009 · 16 Comments

One of my very favourite things about Vancouver (heavy irony, folks) is the way we always think the problems here are unique to us and not actually part of a large trend hitting many cities. So I just love it when readers pass on to me interesting stories about how other cities are tackling exactly the same issues as Vancouver’s. Here’s one such story from Los Angeles, a study on the impact of private security guards hired by business improvement associations.

Your comments welcome.

Categories: Uncategorized

  • There is no question that private security, when deployed appropriately and responsibly, can achieve great results.

    Private security in public spaces is nothing new in Vancouver. My firm, Provident Security, has been providing community security for the Kerrisdale Business Association since 1997 (I believe that only Chinatown’s program has been in place longer). Since then, just about every Vancouver BIA has created some form of security program utilizing security contractors and/or volunteers.

    In the case of Kerrisdale, we have been very successful in reducing a burglary problem that was so bad in 1997 that many merchants had lost their insurance coverage for burglary losses. Beyond burglary prevention, our team helps address shoplifting issues, aggressive panhandling and other neighbourhood concerns.

    We work closely with the VPD’s community policing office and have a great working relationship.

    Despite the positive impact that we, and security programs in other neighbourhoods, have achieved, I wrote a post on my blog about why the city should not fund the expansion of the Ambassador program (here’s the link to the Georgia Straight re-print of that post: ).

    Private security certainly has it’s place, but the City should spend money on increasing funding to community policing officers.

    An effective community security strategy involves many different players. The City should participate by maximizing funding for community policing officers and the BIA’s should dedicate resources to private security programs. Property owners should ensure that their buildings are kept clean, in good repair & free of graffiti. Citizen’s need to take ownership & pride for their neighbourhood and report criminal activity when they see it.

    Effective community security is never about just one thing.

  • Johnny Angel

    The comparison of anything LA and Vancouver doesn’t cut it. They are two very different cities, with very different dynamics.

    Try again, I’m sure something interesting will eventually appear.

  • Dave Jones

    The Rand study certainly opens the door to a very interesting discussion that got lost in the politics of the Ambassador Expansion. That discussion is, can Business Improvement Associations make a difference to crime and disorder in their areas and do those benefits acrue only to businesses or more generally to the public.

    The Rand findings, while for a completely different city in the United States with significant social differences to Vancouver are encouraging. It is also important to recognize that this was principally a youth violence study that measured crime and youth crime specifically pre and post implementation of the american equivalent of the Canadian Business Improvement Associations.

    The message from the Rand report is that committed Business Improvement Associations with money to invest in private security, neighbourhood cleanup and partnerships with police, businesses and civic government can be effective agents for social change.

    The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, DVBIA, has invested in just this way with the Downtown Ambassador program and other programs that support social enterprise organizations by providing work opportunites to clean up the sidewalks and areas around litter bins. The Ambassadors are role models for good citizenship, meeting many of the more desireable attributes the Rand report cites.

    Since 2003 in the DVBIA area, when data on street disorder, hospitality and routine assistance to the public were kept, the results have been impressive. Disorder, including open drug use and open drug trafficking dropped by a factor of 4 from over 4000 incidents per month to just over 1000. In 2006, when extra police were added to the downtown area a further three fold decrease in these types of disorder occurred, dropping the numbers to the 350 range. Since then the DBVIA has been able to track police staffing in the area by watching these numbers, proving that police are indeed important. So too, though, are other public safety initiatives.

    The call for more police or better deployed police is a correct call. But it is not the only call that needs to be made. Our citizens are the fundamental agents for positive social change and they come in a host of forms. The last time you went to the dentist you probably spent more time with the hygienist than the dentist and the same is true of public safety. We should spend more time with other citizens and require the police less often through good maintenance of our community, social cohesion and care. Thus, private security, community service groups, community police centres and average people all have a role in public safety.

    The police are crucial, but they are not the only source of community safety and they would be the first to ackowledge that their abiltiy to effect positive social change is contingent on community involvement. In other words the policing you get is a function of the support and other investements by the public that the police can leverage on your behalf.

    The Rand report is worth a read, it provides some compelling reasons to invest in public safety outside of the police only model. It notes the broad benefits to the public not just the business interests. The summary is short if you don’t have the time for the full report although you will miss much of interest, or from a long ago quote – “A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring; there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain and drinking largely sobers us again.”

  • not running for mayor

    Thanks Dave, I know you guys have been thru a rough patch lately but I just to let you know there are still many citizens that appreciate the service the ambassadors provide, as well as some of the other serives the local BIAs provide to the community. Cheers

  • hohoho

    Yes, let’s not compare Vancouver to other cities around the world unless it conveniently props up one’s argument.

  • Jeannette M

    @ Dave: I still dont’ understand how tax payer dollars should be going towards funding private security guards and not more police as per Michael’s editorial above.

    Sorry, but his argument is about a thousand times more compelling than any arguments I’ve read from the DVBIA or any other BIA or anyone representing the Downtown Ambassadors.

    And also: To compare Vancouver to LA is a bit much – in LA they were (are) dealing with a lot of personal crime – muggings, random violent acts, etc. This doesn’t really exist in Vancouver – not nearly to the extent that it does down there. The DAs serve mostly to protect the interests of businesses – moving along homeless people from doorways, stopping graffiti, preventing break ins to shops businesses. While these are obviously things that DO need to have their eye kept on – (and private security guards are approrpriate for this cause) – the DAs dont’ do have (need) to serve the same role as protect of people here as they seem do need to do there. And also – I read that report, and if I read it right it said crime was down 7% where there was a security force vs 5.7% where there wasn’t? That’s not a HUGE difference – I wonder how much of a bigger difference it could have been if there were beat cops?

  • not running for mayor

    But was the crime down 5.7% in the other areas due to the police being able to concentrate more time on those areas as they had assistance in the covered areas. Way too many variables to state for sure.
    Regardless I think you could get 2-3 ambassadors for the price of one police officer, as much as I think we’d all prefer to have the police it comes down to who will pay for them, and even if we did find the money would they acutally do beat patrols like they used to?

  • Jeannette M

    @not running:

    Did you read Michael’s article that he linked to in the comments about the effectiveness of simply having a community police officer even if shared amongst a few neighborhoods when used in conjunction with the DAs?

    If the president of a security company that provides a DA service is on the record stating that tax payer money should go to a few more cops instead of a lot more DAs then shouldn’t we all stop and consider?

  • not running for mayor

    Is that community office anything like the one across from Broadway station that has had it’s window smashed 3 or 4 times in the last few months and can no longer afford to replace them? Doesn’t seem to be doing very well at detering crime. The solution will obviously be a combination of the two, one without the other will not be very successful.

  • dave jones

    Dear JM: Unless you are willing to spend some time understanding the program there is not much point in this debate. The Downtown Ambassadors do not do, or are certainly not supposed to do, the things you say and it seems no matter how often we say this you keep repeating the misinformation. I am willing to spend some time if you want to discuss what they actually do and where they work. It seems most of the criticism has come from one particular group who implied more than they proved. In one instance the information they claimed was about ambassadors occurred in a different part of town where ambassadors don’t work. In another case they had them driving around in cars which they don’t do and have never done. In yet another instance any old red uniform automatically became an ambassador. Ambassadors are not perfect and the DVBIA has established a comment complaint process through thir website at

    You can contact me through the DVBIA office and I would be happy to have a coffee and discuss this. The DVBIA number is 604-685.7811 Monday through friday 8:30 to 4:30

  • hohoho

    I can’t help but think that if the Ambassador’s program was created by Gregor, many of you would be praising it. Anything with an NPA stamp on it is excoriated or simply renamed by Vision/COPE.

  • SV

    Don’t want to get into a pissing contest hhh, but couldn’t anyone just reverse the “Vision” and “NPA” in your comment and direct it right back at you? Just asking.

  • Edward

    While it is my great regret that Vancouver is growing more like Los Angeles than it is San Francisco, partly due (in my view) to the an undesirable boom in the nouveau riche without a corresponding boom in the creative sectors, I suspect that there are many variables that make a simple comparison between the two potentially unreliable.

    Assuming, however, that the comparison is reasonable, I still remain uncomfortable with the concept of what constitutes a form of private police force.

    Reducing crime is a worthwhile target, but I’m not in favour of business owners being unilaterally in charge of deputising private cops to enforce subjective standards of behaviour, and without being overseen by a cross-section of a neighbourhood’s citizenry as well as the city government (police and council). I don’t believe that there are sufficient safeguards to prevent private security from going beyond reporting crime and treading into infringing on the liberties of those who are simply unpalatable to those of other social classes or privileges.

    They’re called “business improvement associations” because they want to improve business. Things that improve business are not necessarily the same things that improve neighbourhoods, and in some cases may be things that degrade neighbourhoods. It sort of depends on what “neighbourhood” means to you. And what “crime” means to you. Solving crime problems is important, for business interests as well as quality of life of those who do not own businesses. But putting one small, self-interested group in control of addressing crime (especially without correspondingly addressing the causes) is not in the best interests of a community.

  • Gassy Jack’s Ghost

    “Open drug use and open drug trafficking dropped by a factor of 4 from over 4000 incidents per month to just over 1000. In 2006, when extra police were added to the downtown area a further three fold decrease in these types of disorder occurred, dropping the numbers to the 350 range.”

    Mr. Jones, this reminds me of Sgt. Doug Bain’s quote in the Courier a month ago about the crackdown at Pigeon Park, and how “police have received numerous messages… from residents who are happy with the police’s work.” I call BS to Sgt. Bain and to your stat that by 2006 drug dealing incidents in downtown dropped to 350 per month. If they dropped so fast, why are the police in the middle of a 3 month crackdown to clean up the street disorder that you claim has decreased so rapidly? What stats should we believe?

    The few businesses or residents near Pigeon Park aren’t exactly the type to email the police thank-you’s, so I’d love to see all those emails the Sgt. claims to be getting. And while a mere 3 people sat in the normally busy park, the reporter stated that the normally vacant “alley across the street from the park was crowded with people” doing drugs. Surely, drug-dealing in the park dropped at a steep factor, whereas in the alley where everyone ended up getting herded into, drug-dealing skyrocketed. Mr. Bain says about those 3 people: “Now they feel safe that they can come out and enjoy their park.” What a joke! And now there are probably 350 drug deals PER HOUR going on 30 feet away in the alley. Meanwhile, the park sits empty, as apparently all those happy residents who emailed Bain aren’t park-goers.

    I have debated the Ambassadors program before on this site before, and I still can’t fathom why the BIA supports a program that taxpaying residents like Jeannette, myself and others feel is a complete joke and in fact causing street disorder through the DA’s inadequate training, prejudiced policies, and insensitivity towards others. When we report what we see with our own two eyes, you and your BIA buds called it “hearsay”, and here again you tell Jeanette, “The Downtown Ambassadors do not do, or are certainly not supposed to do, the things you say and it seems no matter how often we say this you keep repeating the misinformation.” We keep repeating it because we see it with our own two eyes, and no matter how often we say it, you deny it!

    So who’s really providing the misinformation?

  • Jeannette

    @Dave Jones…. I didn’t say anything hostile (or even critical!) about the DAs in this post, nor did I imply anything about their purpose that is outside of the reality of the program. Nor did I say that I believe they shouldn’t exist – I merely pointed out that if someone who has a vested financial interest in the growth of and financial support for the program is going on the record saying that tax payer dollars should fund the tax payer police force, and private BIA dollars should continue to fund the private BIA security force, then that is a very VERY strong argument that is NOT coming from a person full of misinformation or who is “implying more than they are proving” – which means that we should all give pause and consider his arguments.

    The point that he makes when he states that community police officers make his DAs able to operate in a manner that is more safe, effective, and informed is strong and valid.

    What I was merely pointing out is that this is a unique voice to the debate – dissenting the source of funding but not the service provided, and the call for a double pronged approach makes sense to me – no one who is on the “pro DA supported by tax payer dollars” has been thus far been able to dispute the approach he outlines and further – the more people like your self seem to just say “But you don’t get it!” to tax payers, and NOT offer any strong or valid reasons as to why money should be deferred from police to your program, people will remain unconvinced about the DAs.

    It is obvious that the PR or the spin put on the existence of the DAs needs revamping, as there is a lot of distaste, hostility, and yes, misinformation out there. There has been little to prove how the DAs further *my* interests as a taxpayer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t see how they further the interests of the BIAs or that I disagree with the BIAs having them.

    It seems that often in your responses here, you miss the point entirely.

  • dave jones

    You know how to reach me if you want to have a discussion about this. I am happy to show the data and explain it and to provide my thoughts on why this is a public benefit.

    In the DVBIA area for every business person paying the levi who sets foot on the street and benefits from the overt models of citizenship (yes, the ambassador), there are hundreds of others who do not pay the levi and yet derive the same benefits. They are the residents, shoppers, tourists, workers, street people, etc who do not pay the levi.

    These are public spaces to which people are attracted for multitudes of reasons. People like to be where other people are, to enjoy the surroundings, to talk to each other, see the sights, the attractions, events, restaurants stores, and other businesses. Visible guardians or, as I prefer, citizenship role models help people feel more comfortable. Not everyone wants this for reasons of idealogy, lifestyle or simply because they feel comfort in their own abilities to handle themselves.

    The security professional who wrote has many good ideas and thoughts. This just isn’t one that I agree with for the reasons I have stated over and over and provided more succinctly above.

    As for the individual who says they see wrong doing, then go to and give us something to investigate. If you see it with your own eyes then tell us in a way that is meaningful that we can respond to.

    Also, spend the time to read the Rand report. Thats where this started and it appears that people commenting here have only read the paragraphs in the LA Times.

    Give me something constructive to work with, you might be surprised.