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Violent crime was up 22% in Whistler last year, while property crime, impaired driving fell

Pandemic contributed to ‘very unusual’ year for crime; RCMP continues to work on partnered mental-health response
Sea to Sky Officer-in-Charge Insp. Robert Dykstra presents the Sea to Sky RCMP’s three-year strategic plan to Whistler officials on Sept. 7, 2021.

Whistler RCMP this week presented the resort’s annual crime statistics for 2021, a year police called “very unusual” as the community continued to feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s probably one of the most unusual that I've had in my career,” said RCMP North Zone Commander, Staff Sgt. Sascha Banks.

Presented to mayor and council at the July 5 Committee of the Whole meeting, the statistics showed that violent crime overall was up 22 per cent, from 160 offences in 2020 to 195 last year. That includes a 19-per-cent rise in common assaults, from 72 to 86 offences; a 45-per-cent jump in assaults with a weapon or causing bodily harm, from 11 to 16; and a 17-per-cent increase in uttering threats, from 23 to 27. Overall, the number of total assaults rose 26 per cent, from 86 to 108. The only listed violent crime that was on the downswing last year was kidnapping, which dropped from three to two offences.

Also in the violent crime category, sexual offences increased from 21 in 2020 to 33 last year, a whopping 57-per-cent jump. That includes a 19-per-cent uptick in sexual assault, from 16 to 19 offences.

“This could be just that there's more people in the community,” said Banks, who also noted RCMP now have a specialized domestic violence sexual assault investigator in place who has “certainly made partnerships and made trends where she is an excellent investigator that's allowed more people to come forward. Some of that still needs to be dug into [to determine] why that's occurring.”

In response to a question from Councillor Cathy Jewett about what effect the community’s strained housing market may be having on the spike in sexual assault, Banks said the “dynamic” nature of Whistler as a tourist town means it’s not easy to pinpoint a specific locale where the bulk of such offences occur.

“A portion of those sexual assaults happen with individuals who are coming to the community to visit, so they happen in a hotel-type environment. And then there's ones that happen in seasonal housing, there's ones that happen in homes within the community. And then there’s ones that happen in campgrounds or in the backcountry, so it really varies but we'd have to certainly go back and dive into the books for very specific stats on that,” she said.

On the downswing

In what is another likely sign of Whistler’s COVID slowdown, three persistent criminal categories from over the years were on the downswing in 2021: drug crimes, which dropped 56 per cent, from 41 to 18 offences; property crime, which fell 17 per cent from 423 to 351 offences; and traffic offences, which decreased 27 per cent, from 139 to 102. Impaired driving was also down, from 224 offences in 2020 to 166 last year, a 26-per-cent drop, while motor vehicle incidents overall increased 19 per cent, from 131 to 156.

Banks went on to explain that, while there are concerns with the quality of winter tires on vehicles coming to Whistler from the Lower Mainland, it is often a driver’s inexperience that is the bigger factor in accidents.

“A number of years ago we really dug in when we started to see a lot of winter fatalities on the highway and not one of those vehicles didn't have the right rated tires. It comes to when people are inexperienced in driving in these type of conditions.”

Breaking down property crime further, the only categories that saw increases last year were auto theft (14 per cent); theft from vehicle (11 per cent); and “other theft” over $5,000 (250 per cent). It should be noted, however, that all three categories’ increases were in relatively small sample sizes, like other theft over $5,000, which rose from two to seven incidents.

Overall, calls for service remained steady in 2021, up just two per cent from the prior year (from 4,423 to 4,517).

Of those, 319 were “Priority 1” calls (or calls requiring lights and sirens), a 16-per-cent increase over the 274 in 2020.

The mental health factor

If there was a common trend for police in such an unpredictable year, it was the growing prevalence and severity of mental-health calls in their day-to-day work.

Banks said there has been a steady rise in mental-health calls across the Sea to Sky since at least 2017, but the pandemic served as a “catalyst” over the past two years.

“I started to see it more prevalent; we started to see it more serious in nature,” she said. “When people were in mental health crisis, they were in serious mental health crisis where they had either attempted to take their lives or people were in violent states, from which they required police attendance and police intervention to ensure the safety of not only themselves but everybody else around them, including my members on my team.”

While overall mental health-related occurrences for Whistler and Pemberton RCMP fell slightly from 289 in 2020 and 274 last year, 47 per cent of all the detachments’ mental-health calls in 2021 resulted in apprehensions.

There was also a 13-per-cent increase in mental-health flags, to 185 last year, part of a years-long rise dating back to at least 2016, when there were 60 mental-health flags in Whistler.

Not necessarily linked to mental health, the resort also saw a 47-per-cent jump in well-being checks last year, from 74 to 109.

“This goes along with the increase in the mental-health occurrences that we've seen over the last little bit and well-being checks where people were concerned about their loved ones who they hadn't heard from or maybe had COVID and they were looking to try and make sure that they were doing all right,” Banks said.

Policing in partnership

When Sea to Sky RCMP unveiled its ambitious three-year strategic plan last September, local police talked about their intention to add a mental-health investigator position to the force, modelled in part on a similar program in Surrey and the Fraser Health Authority called Car 67, which sees the RCMP member working with a clinical nurse to provide onsite emotional and mental health assessments, crisis intervention and referrals to appropriate services on certain calls.

Sea to Sky Officer-in-Charge Insp. Robert Dykstra said in a follow-up email that the program is still being discussed and police are hopeful to make some progress in the next year.

“We are in ongoing conversation with RMOW council and this remains a priority for the [Sea to Sky] Whistler detachment,” he added.

Banks also highlighted what she called a “hub model” in development with local organizations, businesses and government, for individuals “struggling in our communities, whether it be mental-health related, whether it be social issues, whether it be crime issues or anything like that,” she said. “The hub model is a group of partners that are getting together to talk about how we can best surround that person with support and how we can implement that and monitor it.”

Work has already been done over the past year to bring community partners to the table “to look at issues and concerns from a more holistic perspective,” Dykstra said. “Modern approaches to community safety require a collaborative approach and I can say with confidence that we are making great strides.”

He added that there is no timeline for the rollout of the hub model, but that in some cases “the approach is happening organically on an issue-by-issue basis.”

The RCMP is also at work on a community response unit being developed in partnership with other local partners that is aimed at creating a more proactive, collaborative approach to policing.

“I am a true believer in innovative partnership policing and collaboration,” Banks said.