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Residents say 'unprovoked assault' underscores community safety needs

Robert Dickieson speaks at a Sarnia Police Board Meeting, Thursday.

Community members are calling for more safety measures following an assault involving schoolchildren earlier this month

“On March 4th, 2024, our sense of security was shaken by a harrowing event," Robert Dickieson said of the incident during which an unknown woman attempted to “grab two children and walk across the road with them” while crossing from London Road School to the Boys & Girls Club of Sarnia-Lambton after-school program at the Lochiel Kiwanis Centre.

“Staff quickly stopped her and the police were called. She has since been arrested and charges are pending," noted a letter from the Boys & Girls Club. "The two children involved are safe and parents were informed immediately.”

Dickieson described the incident as an 'attempted abduction' in his letter to police, but police later contacted The Journal to clarify the incident was an assault. 

Police say the suspect, a 28-year-old Sarnia woman, was in ‘obvious medical distress’ when she was located and arrested.

But the incident underscores a growing concern for the safety and security of residents in the area, known as Sarnia’s Heritage District, Dickinson explained during his delegation to the Sarnia Police Services Board this week.

“It's a chilling reminder that even in the perceived safety of the Sarnia Heritage District, the spectre of crime looms large, threatening to undermine our way of life, not only when darkness falls, but now in broad daylight.”

Dickieson was on hand to propose two ‘immediate actions’ to the board: the establishment of a Community Safety Committee; and, a daily police escorts for area schoolchildren.

“This leads to a broader call to action,” Dickieson continued. “We face an urgent need for a robust response to the uptick in neighbourhood crime.”

He went on to suggest a return to more ‘community policing’ and the utilization of the service’s Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) division, designed to eliminate criminal opportunities in and around a specific area.

“We do have officers trained on that, and we can have somebody walk that route,” explained Dep. Chief Julie Craddock, pointing to collaboration with city officials and homeowners to look at possible contributing factors. “Is there a need for better lighting? Is there a need for cameras? Is there a need for people to cut back bushes and trees that are blocking visibility? So that’s something certainly we can offer as an organization.”

Several years ago, residents in the Heritage District —  the area bordered by Christina, George, Russell and Durand streets — formed their own Neighbourhood watch and invested in surveillance cameras and security systems as crime continued to rise. In 2022, they called on the City to install street-view surveillance cameras and provide more police patrols near the downtown core.

Craddock added that officials are exploring the possibility of expanding the ‘community officer’ outreach — currently one officer is assigned full-time to Aamjiwnaang First Nation

“That is something we are looking at expanding, so that we would have a community constable assigned to the rest of Sarnia,” she said. “Again, it comes down to staffing, because that would have to pull an officer off the road to fill that position, but these are certainly conversations that we’re having; recognizing that community engagement piece is a critical part of policing.”

Ultimately, a shared approach to community safety is what’s needed, both Craddock and Chief Derek Davis said, adding that police are just one piece of the puzzle.

Davis also spoke to the practical challenges the SPS faces, including budgetary and staffing constraints, combined with an unprecedented workload already this year.

“The Sarnia Police Service, certainly in the first quarter of 2024, have experienced a level of workload and a level of call seriousness that I’m told is unprecedented from the people that have been here.”

Police leadership also pointed to Lambton's CSWB (Community Safety and Well-Being) Plan, designed to support safe and healthy communities through a community-based approach to address root causes of complex social issues.

Dickieson has been invited to present at the CSWB group’s May 29 meeting, and also says he’s willing to go to Sarnia City Council to “ask for additional funding for policing by declaring a crime emergency or crisis.

“I am here not just to voice concerns,” he concluded, “but to extend a hand of partnership."

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