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Police service doing what it can to combat drug problem, chief says

Cathy Dobson Sarnia has a drug problem and it will take more than vigilant policing to resolve it, says Sarnia Police Chief Norm Hansen. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of addiction,” he said.
The ‘five-corners’ of Mitton Village. Troy Shantz.
The ‘five-corners’ of Mitton Village. Troy Shantz.

Cathy Dobson

Sarnia has a drug problem and it will take more than vigilant policing to resolve it, says Sarnia Police Chief Norm Hansen.

“We’re not going to arrest our way out of addiction,” he said.

Sarnia Police Services receives many complaints about property damage, vagrancy and theft associated with drug use, Hansen said.

“I don’t want it to sound like crime is out of control but, obviously, a lot of arrests aren’t working.”

Police Chief Norm Hansen

The chief was responding to a recent story about Mitton Village and the frustration of its residents and business owners.

But the problem is widespread and not confined to one area of the city, officials say. Nor is it a uniquely Sarnia problem, with numerous communities trying to come to grips with drug addiction.

City police increased the number of bicycle patrols last summer and make arrests wherever they can, Hansen said.

“We are always strict about administration of justice charges,” he said, explaining that includes breaches of probation, curfews and other court-ordered restrictions.

In fact, the latest stats from 2016 indicate Sarnia police laid the highest number of criminal charges per officer in Ontario.

The real problem is at the judiciary level, the chief said.

“It appears the Ministry (of the Attorney General) doesn’t want these charges to be laid and they refuse to pursue them. These people are almost never denied bail and they are let out the same day.

“It’s very frustrating. I feel for business people who are dealing with this.”

Repeat offenders are sometimes out of jail even before the paperwork is filed.

“I don’t have the answer to the addiction problem but, when it comes to repeat offenders, the pendulum has to swing back to putting these people in jail and keeping them there,” Hansen said.

“I’m far more concerned with the victims than I am concerned about the perpetrators. I think our government needs to do more.”

Not long ago, Sarnia’s downtown was noted for petty crime and store vacancies but it has returned to being a vibrant commercial area, the chief noted.

“We (police) were told to clean it up and that’s what we did,” he said. “We were told to enforce all breaches. The difference was that, at the time, they were kept in (jail).

“Also, at that time (in the early 2000s) we had resources for foot patrols.”

Coun. Brian White said increased jail time can be part of the solution if “it’s an opportunity to rebuild a life.”

Brian White

Jail time forces addicts to dry out, but they also need support from groups like the John Howard Society and Canadian Mental Health, said White, a member of the Mitton Village Community Development Committee, which formed eight months ago.

“I’ve met with Mitton Street neighbours and they are surprisingly compassionate about seeing these people need help,” White said. “We can’t fix the problem by just locking them up.”

The committee meets monthly and has held two public input sessions.

Cleaning up Sarnia’s drug houses is “an incredibly infuriating” challenge, said White. “This problem took years to form and it won’t be solved in eight months.”

The committee is looking at a number of ideas, including attracting more student housing to Mitton Village and improving the streetscape with flowerpots and benches.

The city has committed $20,000 for the committee’s work this year.

“We want to address the social ills, work with social services, police and public health to create a net of services,” White said.

“We can’t expect people to come out of a state of helplessness on their own.”

The committee’s next meeting is on Feb. 13 at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall and is open to the public.

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