City “good neighbour agreements” could have new crime-fighting role

What’s a business to do when a nearby business becomes a focal point for crime, perhaps even for criminals feeding off its neighbours?

Vancouver city staff believe a new version of the city’s “good neighbour agreements,” which are often used to regulate relations between bars, for example, and nearby residents, could hold the answer.

The issue arose at a business licence hearing I chaired last year that featured a Kingsway restaurant operator whose back door had become a focal point for addicted shoplifters selling goods purloined from a nearby London Drugs.

Despite repeated warnings, police interventions and escalating enforcement measures, the restaurant owner had not been able to stop the trade in stolen goods. In fact, he testified, he had ordered his staff to cut this out — even fired one employee who didn’t get the picture — but the problem continued.

Really? It’s so hard to get good help these days.

The matter came to a head because London Drugs has a sophisticated and persistent team focussed just on controlling shoplifting. Their surveillance operations, far beyond the means of a smaller business, laid bare the sordid system that saw large volumes of consumer goods, including a lot of dietary formula, spirited out of the store by desperate addicts and converted to cash just a few steps away.

The panel voted to suspend the restaurant owner’s business licence, but everyone present wondered why it took so long to get action. Why not a “good neighbour agreement,” I wondered, that staff could impose under certain conditions to require action against crime as a condition of keeping a business licence.

It could provide for closer police scrutiny of the operation, with the owner’s co-operation and consent, to ensure crime is driven off the premises through changes in management policies or other measures.

A staff review has concluded the idea has merit, says Deputy City Manager David McLellan, in a recent memo to council. The agreement could “set expectations about how a business manages itself in order to eliminate negative impacts that business is creating in the community and enforcement consequences of failing to carry those out.”

Although not legally enforceable, the agreements could clarify how a business should support law enforcement. Failure to comply “is a factor which Council may consider during a business licence hearing in deciding whether or not a business is being properly managed.” Documented violations of such an agreement make it easy for council to come to a decision.

Business licence suspensions are relatively rare, but enforcement of the licences is very resource-intensive and time consuming for city staff. This new use of the good neighbour agreement might simplify things and fight crime at the same time.

I’ll be following up to see if further council action is required to give police and city staff this new tool.