I recently had coffee with Bill Merrylees. Bill Merrylees is the President of RDI Investigative Consulting Inc. His company focuses on Corporate Investigations, Risk Assessments and Training for Residential and Commercial Properties. Bill has 39 years of high-level policing experience with London Police Service and is also the President of his condo board. He delivers excellent and interactive presentations and provides a unique lens when it comes to awareness and crime prevention. The topic of conversation was to ask him about what changes the London Police are seeing since COVID-19 in terms of criminal activity, new types of criminal activity and what condo boards might want to spend some time on in terms of awareness to both themselves and their communities to reduce any criminal activity to their person or property. As President of his condo board, Bill has great insight into the challenges we face in the industry. Here is our chat:
1. When the pandemic first hit back in the beginning of 2020, how did it affect policing?
In the beginning we didn’t know what to expect, after SARS as an organization we wrote a pandemic plan that we could use in the future. We had just completed a review of that plan three years ago so it was a good guideline for us to use. But what most people didn’t know is that we were planning for the worst. The information that we received from the government and from public health is that during a pandemic, it is possible that if things were to get really bad, we could lose 70% of our workforce. Obviously, that caused us great concern. We formed a COVID-19 committee with all of our senior management team, and we met every day.
2. What were some of the initial concerns that police observed?
As you recall in stage one there was very little traffic on the roads and it was literally a ghost town out there. After several weeks, many of the downtown core areas in cities across Ontario started to board up their windows since businesses were totally shut down. Our calls for service dropped significantly. Not much long after that we started to see an increase in property crimes in those specific areas. This was a combination of break and enters to buildings or thefts from vehicles in parking lots.
3. What was the response from the community business leaders when this occurred?
Naturally, the community business leaders were very concerned about the safety and security of their properties. We are very fortunate in our city to have good relationships with our community leaders. As a result, we worked with them and with officials from the city to come up with a strategy to initiate a pilot project in the downtown core where we flooded the area with officers on foot patrol during strategic times. Within one week of implementing this project it had very positive results. We continued this strategy for several months until things started to open up again downtown.
4. What were some of the other trends that occurred during COVID-19?
Well that is a very interesting question because there was a lot of speculation that certain types of occurrences were on the rise since so many people were at home…but that actually wasn’t the case. The “perception vs. reality” phrase was a very live issue during the beginning stages of COVID-19. The findings below, although specific to London, were also comparable to what was happening across the province. Let me break that down to you in various categories:
a) Overall number of occurrences – From last March to November we saw a decrease in the number of occurrences. The greatest reduction was seen during Stage 1 during the months of April and May where we saw a reduction of 17% and 28%.
b) Property Crime – Property crime was higher the first 2 months of 2020 compared to the previous 3-year average. Once the pandemic was declared it remained high but shifted away from theft and residential B&Es to commercial B&Es and Mischief. Shoplifting occurrences dropped significantly with the closure of businesses.
c) Violent Persons Crime – As people moved into lockdown in their homes both assaults and sexual assaults shifted away from public locations to private locations. Immediately following the pandemic declaration, the number of public assaults and sexual assaults dropped dramatically before slowly rising again as lockdown lifted. Although it is typical to see more assaults in the summer months this year’s June and July were above a normal range. Beginning in June, the province started to enter reopening phases which allowed restaurants and other commercial locations to re-open, this coupled with potentially high tensions from being in lockdown may have driven these numbers higher.
d) Fraud – Overall the number of fraud occurrences was lower this year than the previous 3-year average. However, there was a substantial increase in the amount of internet fraud occurrences. Looking at March specifically there was a huge shift as cheque and other frauds fell below the 3-year average while internet fraud rose above the 3-year average.
e) Disorder – Overall the number of disorder occurrences is in line with the previous 3-year average. There was a large decrease in alcohol violations, though this can be likely attributed to the prolonged closure and restrictions on bars/night clubs.
f) Public Wellness – Following the declaration of the pandemic there was a decrease in overall public wellness occurrences however there was a significant increase in overdoses.
g) Domestics – Although other services and media have reported increases in domestic concerns due to lockdown, this does not seem to be reflected in Calls for Service (CFS). During the pandemic no months had significantly higher CFS than the previous 3-year average. There were higher calls in January however that was pre-pandemic. Overall, there was a 3% increase in domestic CFS over the past 3 year average which is not a significant increase.
h) Mental Health Calls for Service – Although other services and media have reported increases in mental health concerns due to lockdown, this does not seem to be reflected in CFS. Although there was a slight increase in mental health related calls for the year, overall it is not significant. Further, the month following the announcement of the lockdown resulted in significantly fewer mental health calls than the 3-year average for April.
5. What advice would you give a Board of Directors, Property Managers, and Property Owners to best protect their properties and personal security?
a) Report incidents to police…this can also be online
b) Target hardening…improve the building security, have a risk assessment if necessary
c) Increase situational awareness to employees, residents and condo board members at the property…this may require some training or a presentation at an AGM
d) De-escalation training to employees and key stakeholders at properties to deal with homelessness or trespassers
6. What do you think is the biggest takeaway that people should have after reading this?
Boards of Directors have a bigger role to play. When residents are victimized at a condo building, whether it be a theft or a break-in, the impact on how they feel about their own security and invasion of privacy can’t even be put into words! Boards of Directors need to be more proactive when it comes to communicating with their residents on the steps that they are taking to mitigate this risk. Get the right advice and start prioritizing solutions for the vulnerabilities that you have at your properties. Target hardening has proven to reduce crime.
Jennifer Zammit, ACCI, RCM, OLCM
Vice President, Trademark Property Management
Bill Merrylees, MOM, GDPA, FBINA
President RDI Investigative Consulting Inc.