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Reports of violent crime wave 'incredibly misleading,' say B.C. criminologists

The stabbing death of a man outside a Starbucks in Vancouver, B.C., led the federal Opposition leader to reference it as part of a "massive crime wave." But criminologists say murder rates have been largely flat over the past two decades.
The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden Society started a fundraiser for the family of the man who was stabbed to death near a Vancouver Starbucks on March 26, 2023.

On Sunday evening, Paul Stanley Schmidt, 37, was stabbed to death in front of his family and several onlookers outside a Starbucks in downtown Vancouver.

The incident — which occurred in front of his fiancée and three-year-old toddler, and was filmed by a bystander — has prompted outrage on social media and among politicians.

“His wife and daughter witnessed the whole thing. The most disturbing thing is that nobody tried to help, nobody called 911, nobody called the police. They just sat and watched. I can't get my head around it," said the victim’s mother, Kathy Schmidt.

Vancouver police arrested Inderdeep Singh Gosal, 32, shortly after the altercation, and he has since been charged with second-degree murder, according to the Vancouver Police Deparment (VPD).

On Tuesday, Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre told the House of Commons Canada is experiencing a “massive crime wave” as a result of the Liberal Party’s “catch-and-release” bail system. Poilievre named the Vancouver incident as one in a list of killings over the weekend, some involving a knife and others a repeat offender.

According to B.C.’s online court database, Gosal has no previous criminal record.

And despite calls from politicians like Poilievre, some criminal justice experts say the horrific stabbing death — the city's sixth murder of 2023 — must be put into context.

“All types of homicide and attempted homicide rates have stayed pretty much stable over the last 10 to 20 years. So we're not running out there killing each other in great quantities,” said Robert Gordon, a professor emeritus of criminology at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

“We're generally a peaceable nation.”

Police data shows reported assaults have trended up in recent years: in its latest crime trends report to the Vancouver Police Board, the VPD reported violent crime climbed 4.1 per cent in 2022 when compared to the previous year.

Assaults involving a weapon, that led to bodily harm, or involved life-threatening injuries increased more than 30 per cent compared to the two-year average leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, the VPD reported.

“Increases in violent crime have a significant workload implication as these crimes are more complex, resource-intensive, and take longer to investigate than typical property crimes,” stated the VPD report, released last month.

SFU criminologist Martin Andresen said the 30 per cent increase in assaults reported by the VPD is technically correct but taken out of context.

“It's incredibly misleading,” Andresen said.

In Vancouver, the past 25 years of data shows violent crime bounces up and down year to year, but the trend line remains “completely flat,” said the SFU researcher.

“There was no moral panic about about these crimes 10 years ago when they are also at a similar high,” he said. “Why is there a moral panic now?”

Gordon said it can take years to truly understand what is behind rising violent crime statistics. To pin it to any single governing municipal, provincial or federal political party misses the complexities of law enforcement, he said.

“It is a tragedy. There is no question about it,” Gordon said of the Sunday stabbing. “The people who are directly affected are obviously suffering, have suffered and will continue to suffer as a consequence of this murder.

“But we have to be sure that we understand the context. We have to be sure that we understand precisely what happened and how we arrived at the point where you've got a dead person on the ground.”

With files from Rob Gibson/Castanet