Where the sidewalk ends

Walking after midnight near Pizza Corner, a couple is chosen at random and viciously beaten by a group of young people. They are given no warning. They are not robbed.

illustration Kate Sinclair

Giles Oland and his girlfriend Dawn MacPhee discovered what one expert calls “Halifax’s dirty little secret” on a Friday night last October. The couple, in their late twenties, spent a relaxing evening enjoying dinner with friends at a downtown restaurant. They stopped for a nightcap at a bar on Argyle and then, at about 1am, started heading toward their homes on Tower Road in the city’s south end. They walked up Blowers Street to Pizza Corner and turned left on Grafton. “Right in front of the Black Market, there were five or six individuals who surrounded us and kicked me in the stomach and then punched me in the face,” Oland says. “It was a very surreal moment for us because we didn’t expect it. They gave us a look like, ‘You’re not going to get by here’,” he adds. “It was more a feeling of disbelief than anything else,” MacPhee says. “Just total shock that someone would be laying a hand on either one of us when all we’re doing is walking up the street to go home.”

“We soon realized that we weren’t getting by without further violence,” Oland says, “so we turned around and walked across Blowers Street to Pizza Corner and we were only there maybe five or 10 seconds when I looked down Blowers Street and saw a marked police Durango slowly driving toward us. When it got to the corner, we approached it. We told the cop that we’d been assaulted and tried to get across our sense of,” Oland pauses, searching for the right word, “our sense of worry about what had just happened and we asked him to do something.”

To their surprise, the officer told Oland and MacPhee there was nothing he could do. “We more or less started pleading with him to do something,” Oland says. “Eventually he asked which group was it and we pointed out the perpetrators to him and again he said there was nothing he could do. And we said there’s gotta be something you can do.”

MacPhee is still angry at the Halifax officer. “He could have put us in the back of his cruiser and driven us one block up the street and dropped us off on Spring Garden Road and everything would have been fine,” she says. “I see it as a failure on his part that he didn’t put any effort into protecting us.” Instead the officer promised he’d keep an eye on them. But as MacPhee and Oland crossed Grafton Street, he abandoned them and drove off toward Spring Garden Road. “Everyone saw us talking to the police, which escalated the situation I think,” MacPhee adds. As the couple headed toward the Spring Garden Library, they suddenly faced a much larger group of hostile young people.

Dalhousie professor Chris Murphy says stories like Oland and MacPhee’s illustrate Halifax’s “dirty little secret,” the high rate of violent crime in a relatively small maritime city. “I’ve had at least five or six students over the last two or three years talk about being seriously beaten up or one of their friends being seriously beaten up in downtown Halifax,” Murphy says. “We’re talking about people who were hospitalized, broken jaws, broken arms, not just simple scares or rough-ups, but quite serious assaults in places like the Commons, Spring Garden Road and other parts of downtown.”

Murphy, who’s been studying crime patterns for a quarter of a century, points to a Statistics Canada study called “Criminal Victimization in Canada, 2004.” The study, released last fall, is based on a survey of nearly 24,000 Canadian households. It shows Halifax had the highest violent crime rate among the 17 Canadian cities surveyed, with 229 violent incidents for every 1,000 people over 15. Edmonton was second with a rate of 191, while Saint John scored 173 and Toronto and Vancouver, 107 each.

Murphy wishes city politicians and police would make our crime rate less secret by talking about it more often. “The kind of crime that is increasingly disturbing,” Murphy adds “is what is euphemistically referred to as street assaults or swarmings. These are quite a distinctive kind of violent crime because they occur in public places and they’re unprovoked in the sense that the victims are innocent and often unconnected with the offenders.”

A search of newspaper archives and police crime reports quickly turns up dozens of such assaults—so many that they seem to be part of the city’s daily routine. Some are more memorable than others. In two separate incidents last spring, for example, young thugs, each wearing one boxing glove, punched and robbed female victims in the city’s north end. A Halifax musician ended up unconscious in hospital with head and back injuries after being beaten, kicked and robbed last summer on the Halifax Common. A Dalhousie soccer player underwent three emergency operations last fall for uncontrollable bleeding after being punched in the face and robbed in the downtown core. Two elderly victims were beaten and robbed this spring as they returned to their north end apartments. One, an 82-year-old woman, was rushed to hospital with a broken arm as well as shoulder and facial injuries. Sometimes the incidents aren’t reported to police because victims are embarrassed or fear further attacks. But news of them spreads by word of mouth: a young man jumped by kids and punched in the face; a young woman knocked off her bike with a two-by-four and another assaulted with a bicycle chain.

The incidents happen all over the city. A Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge called a highly publicized swarming at Pizza Corner in 2002, a “barbaric…act of senseless brutality and violence.” Up to 15 assailants kicked and punched a man in a series of unprovoked attacks. They also pelted him with rocks. The victim needed 15 stitches to close a gash in his mouth and five staples to repair a wound in the back of his head. The court heard that he still suffers from headaches and memory loss. In August, when he sentenced two women to jail time for the attacks, judge Joseph Kennedy called the assaults “absolutely, completely, uncontrolled, mindless violence. Gratuitous, stupid, mindless violence.” He added that crimes such as this are making people afraid to walk the streets of Halifax.

Professor Murphy says what makes these violent incidents “both troubling and puzzling” is that although there are sometimes thefts involved, money isn’t the main motivation. “There usually is nothing much to gain other than the sheer pleasure of intimidating victims and causing other people to be hurt,” he adds. “On the surface, it looks like neither the municipal government nor the police have figured out a way to respond to this effectively yet.”

Murphy says the Oland and MacPhee incident illustrates a phenomenon that those who study crime call FIDO. The acronym stands for “Fuck It and Drive On,” although during our interview, Murphy refers to it more diplomatically as “Forget It and Drive On.” He says it reflects the sense that not much can be done about this kind of crime, so police simply drive away.

“I’m not saying that the police aren’t concerned, but we haven’t seen any kind of clear response other than their hands are tied by the Young Offender’s Act,” Murphy says, referring to the often-repeated argument that young people flout the law because they know they won’t get punished severely even if they are caught. Murphy says it’s time that municipal politicians and police sat down with community leaders and ordinary folk to discuss a range of solutions, including a greater police presence in potentially dangerous areas, more recreational alternatives for young people and heightened public awareness of violent crime.

Giles Oland and Dawn MacPhee still have trouble coming to terms with what happened after the Halifax police officer abandoned them at Pizza Corner. The couple crossed Grafton Street heading in the direction of the Spring Garden Library. As they passed in front of St. David’s church, they encountered a group of about 15 young people. “A big fat woman got off the wall and kicked Dawn in the stomach and Dawn went flying towards the parked cars,” Oland says. He was surrounded by a half dozen young men who started punching him in the head. “The next thing I know I’m on the ground, I’m on my side and I’m just holding my head and I’m just I guess what they call ‘boot fucked,’ getting my head kicked. You’re lying on the ground and you wonder, could this go on forever?”

“There was a big commotion of people around me,” MacPhee says, “keeping me away from what was going on with Giles.” The attackers said nothing as the beating continued. Then, after about 30 seconds, they fled, fearing perhaps that someone had called the police. “All of a sudden everyone just kind of dispersed,” MacPhee remembers. Some of the attackers jumped in cars, others just seemed to vanish. Oland remembers raising his head and seeing MacPhee limping toward him. “I realized I was just gushing blood everywhere,” he says. “The two of us were sort of staggering around,” MacPhee says. “I remember feeling completely upset and scared and worried about Giles and just in utter disbelief at how this could happen.”

Frank Beazley steps from behind his

big desk and extends his hand in a warm greeting. The chief’s spacious office is upstairs in the ugly, red-brick fortress on Gottingen Street that serves as police headquarters. The building may be intimidating, but the silver-haired Beazley is not. Instead of barricading himself behind his big desk, he sits down in an office chair and speaks in a quiet, clear voice about his work as the city’s top cop.

“Speaking from a chief’s perspective, I lock up about 5,000 to 7,000 people a year,” he says in his kindly way. Beazley acknowledges he’s disappointed that the latest StatsCan study ranks Halifax as Canada’s most violent city, but he admits he isn’t surprised. “Halifax historically has been in the top five or six,” he says. “But no one wants to be number one, especially for things like this.”

The StatsCan survey numbers are higher than the department’s own figures because only about a third of violent assaults are ever reported to police. But Beazley says the department’s figures do show that the city’s violent crime rate has risen over the last couple of years. He adds, though, that about 70 percent of violent crime involves what he terms low-level assaults. “Most of it’s driven by the very nature of our community. We have universities, we have 30,000 to 40,000 young people move in every fall and leave in the spring. It’s a port city. It’s a military base. There’s about 200 licensed establishments east of Robie Street in the downtown core. So with all of that and all the activity and all the people, that sometimes drives our numbers up.”

Beazley acknowledges that the StatsCan study points out that young people, and especially students, are particularly vulnerable to violent crime. StatsCan reports that’s because young people participate in more evening activities such as going to bars or visiting friends. Beazley explains it’s the first time away from home for many university students. “They’ve got a pocketful of money and they start getting into parties,” he says. “They get into the downtown area and they get into fights. So that’s what drives your victimization numbers up. As the study tells you, the profile of people who commit these types of crimes and the profile of the people who are the victims is almost the same. They’re people ages 14, 15 to about 23.”

Beazley has been a Halifax cop for 36 years and he knows the city well. “Back in the ’60s, Halifax was like a lot of other cities,” he says. “The business core was deteriorating. Businesses moved away. What saved the downtown was really the entertainment industry. But that brings a different clientele into the downtown area.”

Lately, Beazley has been talking more openly about Halifax’s dirty little secret. In February, he told the Halifax Chamber of Commerce that police are studying the emergence of six new street gangs that didn’t exist a year-and-half ago. Gang members are between 12 and 22, he said. “A lot of these young people that are in these groups come from areas of poverty and public housing,” he tells me. “They’re people who may be on the social welfare system, from single-parent families.” Dealing with street gangs and other youth crime, he says, involves providing better recreation for young people, educating them about crime and using what’s known as “community-based policing.”

“From the policing side, we’ve changed our whole patrol strategy in the past year,” Beazley says. “We’re calling it our community response approach to violence and crime. We’ve narrowed down the geographic areas of patrol. We’re calling sectors and we’re putting patrol cars into smaller geographic areas so they get to know even better.” There are five sectors or zones in the city’s central area, for example. Much of the downtown from Spring Garden Road to North Street and from Robie to the Halifax waterfront falls within zone four.

The chief also acknowledges the importance of getting officers out of their patrol cars more often so they can talk to people on the street. “That has to enhance the sense of safety when people get to know officers better. That’s why we have the new bicycle beat patrol. It’s almost like what was old is new again.”

The bicycle patrol consists of two officers assigned during daylight hours to downtown Halifax and Dartmouth. As for beat patrols, the department says officers are walking beats in the Gottingen Street “uptown” area 24 hours a day. Another officer has been assigned to patrol a beat on Spring Garden Road at varying times, five days a week. And a “community response” officer patrols north-end Dartmouth. Meanwhile, the department’s business plan calls for another foot patrol in downtown Halifax as well as additional foot and bicycle patrols in north-end Dartmouth.

Beazley looks uncomfortable when I ask him about the officer driving away from Pizza Corner on the night that Giles Oland and Dawn MacPhee were assaulted. Oland says he has discussed the incident informally with various members of the police department. He asked to speak to the officer involved so he could find out why he drove away, but says his request went nowhere. Chief Beazley says it’s hard for him to comment because he doesn’t know the details of the case.

“The downtown core is just so busy on most nights of the week and I can remember myself working it in the mid-’90s and there would be 400 to 500 young people down in that particular area coming and going,” Beazley says. “You’re kind of watching out for the bigger group and you’re trying to prevent something like this from happening as well as investigate complaints when you get a call,” he adds. “What I would have said to those folks if they weren’t satisfied with the police approach that night, they should have come in and filed an official complaint with me so I could have a look and see if we did do something that wasn’t correct.”

On the day that I meet Mayor Peter Kelly in his office at City Hall, the Daily News carries a huge front-page headline in capital letters: “RANDOM ACTS OF…VIOLENCE.” It’s a direct quote from provincial court judge Jamie Campbell, who denied bail to two teens, 14 and 15 years old, after hearing about a series of violent attacks the weekend before in Dartmouth. Two men had been stabbed and two others badly beaten by what appeared to be a roving band of youths sporting blue bandanas similar to ones worn by a gang in Los Angeles. Only two of the victims were robbed. The newspaper quoted the crown attorney as saying one suspect told police “they just liked hitting people.”

Mayor Kelly frowns when I ask what goes through his mind when he sees stories like this. “For me, it’s concern for communities within HRM,” he replies. “Concern for our residents and concern for the approach that the courts have applied in the past.” The mayor explains that judges have generally been too lenient with young offenders, sometimes letting them go free even after they’ve broken the terms of their probations and committed fresh crimes. Kelly says he’s glad that in this case, the judge refused bail. “It’s a very positive sign to me,” he adds. “I now see a desire of the court to be more responsive to these types of situations.”

Kelly says the city is responding to violent crime partly by hiring more police officers. Until now, new officers have simply replaced retiring ones. But in October, the force will be getting 16 extra cops. Kelly also talks about the increased emphasis on community policing with more cops walking beats. He says he’d like to see the federal government bring in stiffer penalties for young offenders and he wishes the province would provide financial support for municipal

policing. (Kelly may get part of what he wants if premier Rodney MacDonald’s new government keeps its recent campaign promise to provide financing for 250 more officers across the province over the next four years.)

In the meantime, Kelly says the city is developing partnerships with social service agencies and schools to provide more recreation for young people as well as arts and after-school programs. The mayor insists the city is taking violent crime seriously. “Should we be doing more?” he asks. “Yes we should. Are we going to be doing more?” he asks again. “Yes we are.”

Councillor Dawn Sloane, the municipal politician who represents downtown Halifax, is also a big fan of community policing. She supports Chief Beazley’s new patrol policies. But she also says residents themselves need to do more about crime. “I see our neighbourhoods around here as almost becoming close-curtained because society has come to the conclusion that we’ll let the police handle it. I don’t think that’s how we should be living,” Sloane says. “I think people need to reclaim their communities and say, ‘I live at Pizza Corner, but I live upstairs. If I hear something, I’m not just going to ignore it. I’m going to take a look and see if I can help.’”

Sloane says the city should consider installing surveillance cameras in areas like Pizza Corner, an idea the mayor and Chief Beazley also mentioned. “I don’t see a problem with it, to tell you the truth. Because you know what? If you’re doing something wrong, then you’d get caught. If you’re not doing anything wrong, what does it matter?” she asks. “The amount of times that you’re actually caught on camera in a day, just think about it. You’re going across the bridge, you’re going to a bank machine, you walk into any mall or any government-owned building, walk into a hospital. You’re on tape at all these places. So having one on a corner which is known as a dangerous area, I don’t have a problem with that at all.” Sloane recognizes there would be opposition from people concerned about protecting privacy. “I hope people understand that to make sure an area is safe for everyone, sometimes you have to go to that extreme,” she says. “I would rather have everybody safe and pissed off. It’s as simple as that.”

Sarah MacLaren, who’s been working with troubled teens for more than a decade, doesn’t mention surveillance cameras as part of her preferred strategy for dealing with violent crimes. For the last six years, MacLaren has served as executive director of a Halifax non-profit group called LOVE. The acronym stands for Leave Out ViolencE. MacLaren argues that kids who take part in swarmings and assaults have usually been the victims of violence and abuse themselves and are angry about it. “Our kids are wandering around with tonnes of pain and anger,” she says. “We try to get at the root causes. We ask kids ‘What were you really mad about when you beat that person with a hockey stick?’”

One teen who joined a gang in north end Halifax told MacLaren he had no family support and no friends but the gang made him feel part of something. “Race definitely raises its head in our town,” she adds. “We are not a racially integrated city.” Sometimes that sense of frustration and racial isolation erupts in violence against innocent bystanders. “We’re not going to do a lot by taking punitive measures,” MacLaren says. “Kids need support programs, education programs, et cetera.” They also need more affordable housing and job opportunities, she says. Most of all, she believes, they need to be consulted. “I’m in love with teenagers. The kids people cross the street to avoid. They know what they need, but we rarely ask them. We don’t really consult with the population we’re supposed to be trying to help.”

Police and paramedics arrived at

Pizza Corner within minutes and drove Giles Oland and Dawn MacPhee to the hospital, where they spent 15 hours in the emergency department. MacPhee sustained a few bruises but Oland’s injuries included a broken nose, two black eyes, severe facial swelling and damaged shoulder ligaments. Oland, a member of the famous brewing family who runs his own business called halifaxwireless.ca, was unable to work for a week. He spent the time in bed popping painkillers and has since undergone physiotherapy for his shoulder. Still, he feels his injuries could have been much worse. At the hospital, he saw two men with broken jaws who, he believes, had also been beaten that night at Pizza Corner. “These people,” he says referring to the young people aged about 17 to 25 who assaulted him, “weren’t down there eating pizza. They weren’t out at bars or coming from restaurants. They were there to hurt people and that was their only goal.”

“I know I can’t walk around this city at night,” MacPhee says. “I get in a taxi now.” Oland says the assaults he endured at Pizza Corner took his freedom away. “I don’t go downtown to eat anymore,” he says. “I’ve only been downtown to eat once since then, maybe twice.”

Professor Chris Murphy says that when people stop going downtown because they don’t feel safe, it makes things worse because the streets are abandoned to troublemakers. “You should feel comfortable going downtown on Spring Garden or going to the Jazz Festival or down to the Buskers’ Festival without being worried about whether you’re going to be jumped by five or six kids,” Murphy says. “I don’t have all the answers and I’m not sure any one person does. That’s why we need to bring people together both within government and outside of government to discuss this problem and develop a strategic response. You can’t guarantee absolute safety, but surely there’s something we can do to take back those streets, those spaces and make them public again.”

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