Monday, April 25, 2011

2011 homicides: Edmonton has 19; Calgary, 2. What's going on?

Experts say 19 homicides to date this year don't mean Edmonton is unsafe


By Ryan Cormier,
EDMONTON - Though Edmonton has seen more than a homicide a week in 2011, experts say the city is safer than the numbers suggest.
The city officially has 19 homicides this year, much higher than average, though many are specific to the circumstance and present little danger to the larger public.
By comparison, Calgary has seen just two homicides so far this year.
“Very, very few homicides are completely random,” said Michael Gulayets, a criminologist at Grant MacEwan University. “In most cases, the victim and offender know each other, such as a domestic dispute or a drug transaction gone bad. Unless you are dealing drugs or involved in similar behaviour, Edmonton is a safe city.”
Two of the 19 homicides occurred in previous years and are only included in the 2011 numbers for bureaucratic reasons.
Two victims were shot by police. Another was killed in prison. Two were killed at known drug-houses and another two had criminal pasts and were facing charges at the time of their deaths.
Two more were killed in domestic situations by people they knew well.
One man died after a “minor assault” that police have said was not an intent to kill anyone.
Only four cases have the potential to be random, and none of them have been declared as such.
“The homicides we’ve seen have been, generally speaking, alcohol-fuelled spontaneous stabbings as opposed to organized crime or planned executions,” said Steven Bilodeau, Alberta’s Chief Crown Prosecutor. “It’s difficult to say why these are happening in such a cluster and the fact is it’s also very hard to take preventive steps against these sorts of criminal actions.”
Gulayets said homicide trends are often only visible in hindsight and not in the midst of a spike. Nineteen homicides will have 19 different explanations.
“Homicide is an extremely complicated human interaction. To try to sift it down to a simple explanation is folly,” he said.
Central Edmonton has seen more homicides than any other area, a common trend for a decade now.
Arlene Yakeley, chair of the Edmonton Police Commission, pointed out that this year’s homicides have not been marked by the patterns of years past.
“While violent crime has the tendency to make people feel unsafe, citizens need to know there is no pattern to these homicides, there are no drug wars, no gang connections and no obvious links between them.”
Edmonton is safe, Yakeley emphasized, a sentiment shared by Sgt. Tony Simioni, head of the Edmonton Police Association.
The city has always had factors that stand as root causes of homicide, he said, such as a significant “blue-collar” population and more young, single males than cities of comparable population such as Calgary or Ottawa.
Calgary currently has two homicides. Ottawa has had three. Vancouver has six.
Eleven of the 19 homicides are considered solved.
Other crimes in Edmonton have not seen the same spike. In the first quarter of 2011, assaults have dropped 8.3 per cent and robberies have dropped by 17 per cent. Break-and-enters have decreased by 43 per cent, when compared with the first quarter of 2010.
However, sexual assaults have jumped 16 per cent so far this year.
The history of homicide in Edmonton changed drastically in 2004 and 2005, as the most recent oil boom hit the province. Previously, the rough average was 20 homicides a year, and the 28 that occurred in 2004 set a record. That was smashed in 2005, with a huge leap to 39 killings.
That number stayed in the 30s for several years, before dropping to 27 in both 2009 and 2010.
In 2005, Edmonton’s city limits were home to 712,391 people. In 2009, that number had increased to 782,439.
From 2005 to 2008, the worst stretch for homicides in Edmonton’s history, the Eastwood neighbourhood often bore the worst brunt. The situation was particularly bad in the Fall of 2005, when a roving gang of youths killed two random people and injured a woman by dropping a cinder block on her head. The victims were chosen only because they were outside at night.
People were afraid to leave their homes, particularly near the intersection of 82nd Street and 118th Avenue. The area became the example of random homicides, those that scare residents the most.
“We basically barricaded ourselves under a siege attitude,” said Norm Aldi, past president of the Eastwood Community League. “But now, things have changed drastically in our little part of the world. We can walk the streets and feel secure.”
The community put pressure on Alberta Avenue restaurants that catered to the prostitutes and drug-dealers that lined the streets. Some closed down, some underwent a change in management. Once there was nowhere to go, those people began to disappear, Aldi said.
Derelict housing was tore down and residents began to improve their yards and homes without the fear of vandalism. The Edmonton Police Service used undercover cops on the streets to help regular patrol officers.
In 2004, city workers counted only four kids per hour going to the Eastwood Community League park. The ground was often littered with used condoms and needles. Last summer, the park was clean and an average of 35 kids an hour showed up.
“It was something we wanted to see, but only a few thought it could happen,” Aldi said proudly. “There were times we were really discouraged, those were bad times.”
There has only been one homicide in the Eastwood-Alberta Avenue area this year, and it was not random.

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