Slate of three new bylaws aim to codify legal power for Penticton bylaw officers as part of community safety goals

More power to bylaw?

Penticton city council will soon ponder new bylaws aimed at providing more solid legal ground for local bylaw officers to respond to social nuisance complaints.

A package of three proposed bylaws will be presented to council Tuesday for consideration.

The first, dubbed the "Safe Public Spaces" bylaw, establishes sweeping "community standards and consequences for violations of those standards," covering everything from solicitation, loitering, open drug use, disorderly conduct, public urination and more in the same ilk.

At a technical briefing with media Friday, city director of developmental services Blake Laven explained there is a gap in existing bylaws that this aims to fill.

Larger cities like Kelowna have had social nuisance-type bylaws in place for years, Laven said, but Penticton has not needed one until recently.

"Calls of a community safety, livability or security nature [have seen] a huge increase, the large majority of calls that we are receiving fall into that bucket," Laven said, explaining there is no official municipal bylaw that people are breaking associated with many of those.

"People sleeping in in doorways, people panhandling in a drive-thru, people taking over public bathrooms ... calls from business owners that there's somebody in a state ... they call our community safety officers."

The proposed bylaw also gives officers the authority to confiscate banned material found in listed prohibited public spaces like parks, bus stops, malls, drive-thrus, schools etcetera, including controlled substances and drug paraphernalia.

A noted exception for drug instances is for harm reduction workers and safe consumption sites.

Should the bylaws be adopted, officers will have legal authority to respond to types of calls they are already responding to in a currently grey legal area, and will be able to cite a specific bylaw being broken.

"It's already happening, this explicitly gives us that authority to do that," Laven said, noting the recent legalization of small amounts of illegal drugs does not have an impact on this bylaw.

"Local governments continue to have the authority to pass bylaws restricting public substance use."

The second bylaw aims to codify the legal description of bylaw officers' ability to enforce municipal rules, including being able to enter into private properties when necessary, "use force when necessary" in execution of their duty, and issue tickets, bylaw notices and search warrants.

The final bylaw would be a sort of "rebrand," Laven said, giving peace officer status to bylaw staff which provides them heightened legal protection from assault by the public.

"This isn't special municipal constable status. That's something different something we are researching, but not not proposing at this time," Laven said.

"It's about trying to get voluntary compliance. It's about working with people, it's about getting them supports that they need, if that's the case."

Bylaw services manager Tina Mercier said an example of how this would help the work her department does would be a private business that is frequently publicly accessed, perhaps an ATM vestibule, that has an individual behaving as a public nuisance.

"Technically, the bylaw right now doesn't allow us to go on that property and help the property owner manage the situation ... the banks are constantly phoning for some support," Mercier said.

"I'm not trying to create our own police service. This is really just more tools to resolve the issues that the community is facing, which is pretty much the norm across the province ... All the bylaw departments across the province are looking at amending their bylaws or having that new kind of model bylaw like this, where they can help resolve it so that it's not always up to the police to be responding to these calls."

Bylaw services received 3,500 calls in 2022 for social nuisance in public matters, some of which Laven suggested may otherwise have added to an already stretched-thin local RCMP.

Mercier explained the changes are meant to be part of a larger strategy of local safety, and duty to all members of the community.

Her officers regularly work with the street-entrenched population and, when individuals are receptive, help them get to various community services.

She said it's hard to gauge the impact of bylaws such as these.

"We just want to make sure that we're doing everything properly, safely, and with the right legal authority. But whether or not it makes a difference, it's hard to measure these things, because a lot of it is anecdotal stories from members of the community that we might hear," Mercier said.

"So if we can get someone out of this location, so that everyone can use that space, for example, that's the goal. Let's get them to [health treatment], let's get them to the hospital, trying to get people to where they should be to get their needs met. So it is a lot of, I've heard the term 'whack-a-mole,' there is a lot of that happening. But it is very much with a reason and with an intent to get people to where they need to be."

The city's bylaw department currently has eight full-time community safety officers and six general bylaw officers, which are augmented by more temporary staff in the summer months when call volumes rise.

Should the new bylaw be adopted, Mercier said the focus would still be on safety, including defensive training for officers and knowing when to involve RCMP, but with an initial response of de-escalation and attempting voluntary compliance.

The bylaws will be presented to city council on Tuesday, March 21 for first reading. If council votes to move forward, there will be a public engagement period and more staff research before a final presentation to council for adoption later in the spring.

More Penticton News