Canada’s capital city a trouble spot for petty theft

Credit: Mel Hein Caption: Mel Hein’s green bike was stolen last September from outside her café, “Good Eats” in downtown Ottawa
Credit: Mel Hein
Caption: Mel Hein’s green bike was stolen last September from outside her café, “Good Eats” in downtown Ottawa

Ottawa café owner Mel Hein was devastated when her distinct green bike was stolen from outside her restaurant in September of 2014.

“The bike was a gift from my husband, so it held a lot of sentimental value,” she said.

According to an analysis of Statistics Canada crime data from 2010 to 2014, the rate of total small time theft in Ottawa was nearly 13 per cent greater than rates in Ontario, suggesting that Ottawa is a trouble spot for petty theft.

Small time theft consists of all theft under $5,000, including theft from a motor vehicle and theft obtained through shoplifting.

According to University of Ottawa criminology professor Ronald Melcher, the most troubling part about petty theft is that more than 80 per cent of cases go unsolved. Melcher said that small time theft has some of the lowest conviction rates of all crime categories.

Vanier Community Police Centre Const. Jacques Carriere said that in Ottawa, the most common items thieves target are bikes and cell phones.

He said that the sharp increase of electronic theft, in particular, in Ottawa in recent years prompted police to issue an Internet public service campaign to educate residents on how to avoid becoming a victim of this type of crime.

The police’s main message? Be aware of your surroundings and be mindful of displaying electronic devices. If a theft does occur, police say it’s better not to resist attackers, as this could lead to serious injury.

This kind of advice could have served Westboro resident, Dylan Hanley, well. In 2012, a year that saw small time theft rates in Ottawa outweigh theft rates in Ontario by more than 20 per cent, Hanley’s cell phone was stolen by an unidentified male brandishing a bottle in the Byward Market.

“I hit him, we struggled, and he eventually threw me into the road, at which point I dropped my phone and he took off with it,” said Hanley.

Irvin Waller, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, said cases like Hanley and Hein’s don’t surprise him.

“Ottawa is an affluent city with easily transportable and saleable goods such as bikes and cell phones,” said Waller. “These items are very attractive to thieves looking to make a quick buck.”

Waller also said that one of the key reasons theft rates are so high in Ottawa compared to the rest of the province is that Canada’s capital city has not invested in proven strategies that reduce theft or more serious common crimes. Waller said these strategies involve diagnosing the problem and investing in preventative solutions in schools and communities.

However, while the data suggests that Ottawa is a problem area for petty theft, University of Ottawa criminology professor Ronald Melcher is sceptical that the numbers illustrate anything significant other than variations among jurisdictions in local reporting and police recording.

Melcher said that Statistics Canada uses police reported crime rates, data he claims is notoriously unreliable, as it is subject to the proportion of victims who report their victimization as well as police decisions to record what is reported to them. Melcher said that in Ottawa, a relatively safe city, police might have more time to record petty thefts than in other jurisdictions that are more preoccupied with major crime.

Whatever the explanation for the high levels of reported theft, it is clear from individual cases like Hein and Hanley that no one is immune to this type of crime.

Unlike Hanley, whose phone was never recovered, Hein considers herself lucky that just two months after her bike first went missing, it was recovered by police in an apartment building nearby.

“Some of the parts were gone, but police were able to identify it because of its distinct green colour,” said Hein.

Hein hopes to have her bike up and running again by the summer.


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