Making downtown safe
Provincial court Judge Jim Mitchell’s scorching remarks last week in sentencing a woman on charges of criminal behaviour in Red Deer’s downtown puts the spotlight on a problem in the heart of the city.
“Ordinary people don’t want to go downtown because of people like you,” said Mitchell in sentencing Robyn Longhorst, 28, who demanded cigarettes and money from a woman who was walking through the downtown area.
“I’m not sure we even want you in Red Deer. You’ve got some deep-seated, long standing issues,” said the judge.
Long gone are the days when a person could walk through downtown Red Deer without a care in the world, at any hour of day or night.
No one can deny that a criminal element frequents the area, often blatantly snubbing the rules that are designed to make citizens feel secure.
It is a circumstance that is increasingly common in city centres around the country. Economic conditions, combined with mental health and substance issues, have created dramatic problems in many communities.
Mitchell used Longhorst as an example after the woman, who has battled addiction and mental problems for years, approached another woman walking near 49th Street and 51st Avenue. Longhorst asked for cigarettes and cash. Court heard that when the victim said she had neither, Longhorst swore at her, called her a liar and showed her a knife.
The accused had served 60 days in the remand centre prior to pleading guilty last week to possession of a dangerous weapon and obstructing police investigating the case. She was sentenced to time served in custody.
“The good people of Red Deer are just fed up to their eyeballs with drug-addicted creeps (populating) the downtown,” Mitchell said. “The RCMP now know you,” he told the offender. “With your record, the next time you get into the back of a police car, don’t expect to be released by police on a bail order. Expect to be headed to the remand centre again.”
Mitchell’s concerns are credible and shared by many members of this community.
But they don’t tell the whole story.
Earlier this week in a letter to the editor, Rev. Jeffrey Rock offered another perspective. He suggested we were better to offer those on the margins of society “the love, compassion and dignity everyone here in Red Deer deserves.” It’s a wonderful gesture, if a little idealistic.
The bottom line is that a woman was threatened by Longhorst, and this kind of incident is far from unusual in downtown Red Deer.
Rock wants to help this woman, and others like her. So should we all.
But how do we do that and still feel safe on our streets?
We start by having people like Mitchell stand up for us.
Before joining the bench, Mitchell was a Crown prosecutor known for his relentless and passionate pursuit of offenders. He knows well, from years of experience in Red Deer, how deep this problem is. His perspective should not be discounted.
Much has been done downtown to make the streets safer. Even architectural details are considered in terms of crime prevention. Efforts have also been made to improve and increase city policing downtown, including bicycle patrols and other measures.
And Red Deer and its community groups have invested a great deal, in terms of cash and human resources, into housing, feeding and otherwise caring for, and guiding and counselling those on the margins.
Nevertheless, we continue to have problems. Robyn Longhorst’s behaviour, and the threat felt by her victim, cannot be denied.
And that’s why we need people like Jim Mitchell, and Jeffrey Rock.
Rock is there to intercept and guide people like Longhorst before they cross the line.
Mitchell is there to draw the line, and make it clear that the rule of law is the ultimate social framework.
Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.