Violence, threats to City staff prompt this North Okanagan town into action | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Violence, threats to City staff prompt this North Okanagan town into action

Image Credit: WelcometoArmstrongBC
February 28, 2020 - 8:15 AM

The City of Armstrong is moving forward with a plan to develop a program to help City staff deal with abuse and threats following an increase in threatening and antisocial behaviour municipal workers are having to endure.

The City is working on the initiative with the Municipal Insurance Association of B.C. to develop resources for mitigating risks and backing up staff.

“Unfortunately we have had individuals that have come (to City Hall) that have been very confrontational (and) have been abusive,” City of Armstrong community services manager Warren Smith said. “We're starting to see an escalation in these types of incidents.”

While Armstrong may be a small, rural North Okanagan town, the City has dealt with several serious incidents involving the public and municipal staff last year.

“We’ve had a bylaw officer that was physically struck by an individual,” Smith said. “We've had an individual make threats and references to owning a gun to our staff at our front counter. We've had shovels thrown at public works vehicles during snow removal."

While no criminal charges were laid after the bylaw officer was struck, the incident involving City Hall front counter staff did lead to an individual being criminally charged in 2019, although the charges were later stayed by Crown prosecutors.

Smith said in talking with other municipalities they tell him they are seeing the same pattern.

Last week the news broke that Vernon City councillor Dalvir Nahal received a death threat through the mail last November. Former Summerland Mayor Peter Waterman on two occasions found a dead rat on his doorstep in 2017. An online post threatened to burn down Peachland Mayor Cindy Fortin's house in 2018 and the RCMP made an arrest, before later releasing a man without charges, following a death threat received by Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran. Politicians have also blamed social media comments as being a deterrent for getting into politics.

The program Armstrong aims to put together largely relates to municipal staff and it's not hard to see why it's needed.

The B.C. Federation of Labour puts municipal and provincial government workers in a high-risk category for violence in the workplace, listing them along with corrections officers, health care workers, teachers, and several other occupations. Figures released in a WorkSafe B.C. 2018 report, show that three per cent of all serious injury claims dealt with by the organization came from an act of violence in the workplace.

A 2016 report from the City of Penticton shows that staff endured a wide range of behaviour from the public from crying to threatening remarks. The report shows staff in the City’s revenue and collections department dealt with more frequent “at risk” situations. Staff dealt with raised voices and crying on a daily basis, were sworn at multiple times a week, and received personal attacks weekly. Physical threats to damage City property occurred monthly and physically threatening remarks directed at staff happened multiple times a year. The report lists examples of physically threatening remarks as, “I’ll be waiting for you outside after work” and “death threats.”

While Penticton’s report deals with the high-risk revenue and collections department, the City noted there had been an increase in the lack of respect that people have towards City staff.

“With the high volume of people using City facilities or speaking with City staff, even a small percentage of unhappy encounters translates into daily incidents involving poor public behaviour,” the City said in a statement.

The City’s comments seem to reflect those of Armstrong Mayor Chris Pieper.

“There is a very small percentage of people who cause a large per cent of the problems," Mayor Pieper said. “It’s a very small per cent… but you have to be aware of it.”

Pieper, who is now in his fourth term as mayor, said he thought the issue was Canada wide. The mayor said it was difficult to pinpoint what changes had happened since he first got into politics.

"Either it didn’t happen or it’s more visible, I’m not quite sure... I think they've always been there, but I think there’s more awareness now,” he said. “We used to just slough it off and now we think about it."

Awareness of the issue does appear to be far more prevalent with local governments.

An August 2019 staff report to Vernon council says staff have seen an increasing number of incidents of aggressive behaviour. The incidents occur mainly to front counter staff as well as on the phone during tax season and period of quarterly billing. The operations division front counter staff are also a target “particularly during snow events,” says the report.

And things have changed when it comes to municipal policy. In 2011 Vernon had 10 staff members attend a Prevention of Workplace Violence training course. In 2018, 81 staffers took the training. Overall figures show that by 2018, 274 employees had taken the course.

Smith said the hope is that the program they develop will allow smaller local governments like Armstrong who may not have the resources to put the supports in place that are needed.

“When you're subject to these types of abuse over and over again it can take a toll on our staff and their mental health and their safety and security diminishes,” he said.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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