Stratford 2SLGBTQIA+ community discuss actions to counter rise in hate-related crimes & incidents: investigation

After homophobic vandalism was discovered at Sirkel Foods in Stratford on the morning of Nov. 1, a meeting was planned at the Stratford Pride Community Centre (SPCC) to allow the community to discuss their feelings, thoughts and fears with representatives from Stratford Police Services, the City of Stratford council and the Stratford City Centre Business Improvement Area

This is the first in a three-part series of articles which discuss how police investigate hate-motivated incidents and what the city and the public can do to help make the community more welcoming and inclusive for all people.

Bruce Duncan Skeaff, the senior organizer of the Stratford Pride Community Centre, thought the meeting would be a good idea because he felt “so astonished and horrified” when he saw the hateful graffiti left at Sirkel Foods.

“I thought it might be an idea to offer everyone a chance to come and share their feelings and share their thoughts, ask questions and exchange ideas with some of the most important people in the city,” he told the large group of people who gathered in the SPCC on Nov. 2.  

Stratford Police Chief Greg Skinner was the first city official to address the crowd. Duncan Skeaff spoke with him in a question-and-answer format so that the evening could begin with everyone on the same page about key facts of the situation.

“What can you tell us about the incident right now?”

“I can speak to the status of the investigation and some of the facts around the case,” replied Skinner.

When the incident was reported to the police, they conducted a preliminary investigation, including photographing evidence and canvassing the area for any witnesses or any surveillance video that may support the investigation.

“Unfortunately, to date, there has been no video surveillance or any other evidence that has come forward for us to be able to identify any persons of interest who may be the ones responsible for the hate-based graffiti,” he said.

Duncan Skeaff asked if police suspect a connection between the egging of the same restaurant a few weeks before and vandalism to the rainbow crosswalk last year.

“We would never discount there from being any connection between any incident with a similar modus operandi or a similar theme to them,” said Skinner. “There is nothing we can find at this point that links those occurrences and suggests that it is the same people committing those offences; however, we would never rule that out as a possibility.”

“A lot of us watch police TV shows, sometimes a little too much, and they think that DNA can solve everything,” said Duncan Skeaff. “How does an investigation for this sort of thing, in real life, proceed?”

“That’s a good question because an investigation like this is very labour intensive, basic level stuff,” said Skinner.

He explained that a police officer arrives at the scene, takes statements and canvasses the areas. Officers secure evidence that might be short-lived or long-term evidence, and they proceed from there to follow up on any evidence.

“However, in the absence of evidence, it makes the investigation that much more complex, and this is where the public comes in because,” said Skinner. “in these situations, we always hope there is some information that somebody has … that will provide us with an opportunity to follow up on those leads.”

He encouraged the public to share information confidentially through crime stoppers, or call or email Stratford Police Service, or contact an individual police officer they may have a relationship with or have some confidence in.

Skinner said the investigation is complicated because of the time of day that it happened.

“We are talking about sometime between 4:00 pm and 5:00 am, so we have no exact time,” he said. “We have no witnesses to date that saw anything or have any information. We don’t have any surveillance video.”

Video can be beneficial in an investigation because even if it does not identify individuals or a vehicle, it will help pinpoint a time for the incident.

“Every little bit of evidence builds upon itself, and when we have a time, then we can start to narrow down potential people who were out at that time of night,” said Skinner. “Unfortunately, when you’ve got 12 hours, it’s tough to narrow down that scope of people that were out.”

The last thing he said police do from an investigative point of view is put out a media release.

“Hopefully, that will cause somebody to come forward with information that will support furthering the investigation,” he said.

Duncan Skeaff said a note the police chief sent him earlier included a remark that he found “rather disturbing.”

“There is a greater incidence of hate crime in this city than we know,” he said. “It is not something most people think of when they think about Stratford, so it’s rather disturbing to hear that is the case. What’s going on?”

“Well, it’s not just Stratford,” replied Skinner. “First, you look at the political climate in North America. You look at the divisiveness that has happened in North America in the past four, five, or six years, and I hate to say it but getting worse.”

He noted the pandemic’s impact on people from the perspective of police services dealing with the “big five social issues” of homelessness, addiction, mental health, family conflict and self-harm.

“Those are the big five we were dealing with pre-pandemic, but during the pandemic, some of those started to skyrocket, and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of what the future may hold,” said Skinner. “From the aspect of the increasing incidents of hate in our communities, I can tell you that communities in the Greater Toronto Area have significant spikes in hate-related crime.”

He mentioned that Halton Region had a 160 percent increase in hate-based crimes and incidents over the past three years. Toronto increased by about 52 percent and Hamilton by (35 percent.) He stated that from 2008 to 2020, statistics in Stratford have fluctuated but are now trending upward.

“You’ll see that I don’t necessarily say hate-based crimes,” said Skinner. “I differentiate between hate-based crimes and hate-related incidents. It’s important that we know that distinction because a hate-based or hate-motivated crime is a criminal act – assault, threat, mischief like graffiti- those are all crimes. Those are things you can be arrested for and charged with a criminal offence. Then it becomes, is that offence hate-motivated? In other incidents where you will have hate as part of an incident that is not criminal, it becomes a hate-based incident.”

As an example of a hate-based incident, he mentioned somebody with an offensive symbol in the window of their residence.

“Not illegal to do it, abhorrent maybe, but not illegal, so it is not a crime, but it can be a hate-based incident when somebody reports that they have been offended by whatever image they have seen,” said Skinner.

Duncan Skeaff said that would be a topic they would return to as the discussion moved forward. It is one of the motivating reasons they wanted to provide a safe space in Stratford for the 2SLGBTQIA+ community when opening the SPCC.

“It is something needed that wasn’t here before, and after a situation like this, it is even more reason why that welcoming door downstairs off the sidewalk is there for anyone who wants to come in here, sit down and know they are not going to be attacked,” he said. “One spot in Stratford where you can be guaranteed that won’t happen.”

“I just want to say that I hear many people criticize the police budget, and when we have a town hall meeting around the budget, we get one or two people out,” added Skinner. “Clearly, this is near and dear to everybody’s heart here. You are very passionate about this issue. I am so pleased Bruce has organized this, brought everybody together, and invited me to participate, so I appreciate it.”

As the discussion continued, one concerned citizen asked how many surveillance cameras were installed in the downtown area.

Skinner didn’t know the answer.

“City hall that has cameras,” he said. “The police station has cameras that are outward pointing, and there are several private cameras, but I don’t know the numbers, and they are focused generally on the frontage of the buildings.”

Skinner said Stratford Police had launched a new Security Camera Registration and Mapping (SCRAM) program.

“Generally speaking, when there is a crime in the public realm, we will canvas neighbourhoods and ask people if they have private video cameras and if they could review their video footage,” he said. “If there is anything that may be useful to us, let us know, and we can cut that footage, maintain it as evidence, and take it from there.”

That is very labour-intensive, but according to Skinner, it has solved some significant crimes. The problem is whose door to knock on, and people work various shifts.

“If we knock on a door and there is no answer, we don’t necessarily have the time to go back two, three, four times,” he said. “If we have people register their video surveillance equipment, we could reach out to them specifically, and they could provide us that when it was convenient for them.”

Another citizen asked if more video cameras should be in the area where at least three incidents targeting the 2SLGBTQIA+ community have occurred and who would be responsible for installing and maintaining cameras.

“I am always going to say that it is better to have more cameras than fewer,” said Skinner. “In some big cities in North America and Europe, the statistics are that you are on a camera every seven seconds when you walk around. We’re not there yet in Stratford by any stretch of the imagination. Do we want to have that big brother image? I don’t know, but from a police and a public safety perspective, I certainly would like to see more cameras in the areas where we see higher crime rates.”

Recently, the Stratford Police Service successfully got a grant for $200,000 from the provincial government to expand the CCTV program. The CCTV grant was to expand the cameras in social housing units because of the crime within the social housing system.

“If those grants come up again, certainly these types of events will be brought forward as something we should be thinking about the next time,” said Skinner. “It will certainly be front and centre in my mind as we write that grant.”

Another citizen acknowledged that catching the perpetrator and installing cameras is important but said that doesn’t make them feel safer walking down the street.

“I think there is a two-pronged approach that needs to happen due to this,” she said. “Yes, I want convictions which are important, but there is an underlying hate in this community, and I don’t care if you are Queer or of Colour or a Woman, there is an underlying hate. As a community, we must come together and let people know that’s not welcome.”

She said she rides their bicycle home from work at night, and cameras won’t make them feel safer knowing that underlying hate is in the community.

“We just really need to come together as a community, and it’s got to start, not just with catching someone but instilling what’s important,” she said.

She said people need to understand that “the locker room talk, the stuff that degrades me as a human being, is not acceptable” because it launches into the kind of action displayed by the graffiti attack on Sirkle Foods.

“We know some of the councillors who were going for election suffered hate coming at them as well,” she said. “Catching doesn’t seem to make a difference anymore. Something else has got to happen in conjunction with catching.”

“You are 100 percent correct,” said Skinner. “From my perspective, I think the first thing that we as a community must do is recognize that we have an issue that we need to deal with.  There is not that recognition across the board.”

He pointed out that the Stratford Police Service has a committee called the Community Equity Action Team working alongside them. Although he said this collaboration is in its infancy, they have been researching how other municipalities and police services deal with equity, diversity, and inclusion as a priority.

“We recently had a presentation from Peel Region,” said Skinner. “They laid out a seven-point plan in conjunction with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal to have a positive impact within Peel Region, so I think we could use that as a road map to be able to start down the path.”

“We have had all kinds of racist incidents in the City of Stratford, and yet there are many people in the City of Stratford who would say that racism is not an issue,” he continued. “We must get people to recognize that racism – even if we just say ‘systemic racism’ – I’m not here to blame or shame anybody. This is to recognize that there is systemic racism within our community, and we need to be able to deal with it. We need to be able to recognize it. We need to be able to say it, and we need to be able to come together as a community and stand up against it.”

Another community member asked what police services are doing aside from investigating and responding to help with community outreach to mitigate hate-motivated incidents, what the Community Equity Action Team’s role is, and what budget they have for that work.

Skinner said the action team is in its infancy, working on ideas for community outreach through public education and public engagement.

“Are they funded by the police?” A citizen asked.

Skinner said they are funded through the police service board, but we are so new that they don’t even have a set budget.

“We’ve been having those budget discussions as we move into budget time at the city so that we can try to formalize our strategic direction and our plan and figure out exactly what we are going to need as a group to be able to put some of the ideas in place and quite frankly we’ve been focused more internally at this point,” he said. “The justice system in North America is built on systemic racism, and the police are part of that, and we need first and foremost to recognize within the system that we’re working (in) that there are issues we need to address. So that’s where we are focused right now.”

This series of articles will continue with more discussion of the reaction and preventative measures the city, community and police of Stratford may take to deal with the rise in hate-based crimes and incidents.

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