Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Bus stops and crime - 30 years later

Bus stop location in Scarborough not far from where
Paul Bernardo waited at night to follow and sexually assault women

by Gregory Saville

Between May 1987 and June 1990, Toronto police investigated the case of the Scarborough Rapist - Paul Bernardo. Scarborough is a sprawling suburb of Toronto and at the time the fear of a serial rapist spread across the entire Toronto metro like wildfire, especially along public transit lines. This notorious and horrific case is well-known in Canada and eventually led to the arrest and conviction of Paul Bernardo, the rapist (by that time, tragically, a serial murderer). 

I first learned of this case as a police patrol officer 25 miles west of Scarborough, but we knew very little about the facts at that point. Coincidentally, I was also in urban planning grad school at that time and one of my professors asked me to join a new group conducting field visits and safety reviews on the Toronto transit bus and subway system resulting from the Scarborough rapes. They created their audit form from research on CPTED and they were calling it a safety audit. 

That is how the safety audit was born – out of tragedy and necessity. 

Up to that point, fear of crime patterns was surmised from generic surveys, but specific geographical details were sketchy. We knew from interviews what residents said about fear, but little about the specific places that triggered those fears. The Safety Audit changed all that.

Today, many Scarborough bus stops are not much better than in the late 1980s


A few days ago I helped a local transit committee conduct their first Safety Audit on a bus stop near my home – the first audit of its kind in Colorado. 

What we found was fascinating. We discovered an isolated and remote bus stop location with few nearby opportunities for natural surveillance. We learned that bus drivers reported disorderly incidents on this route and that this stop was the end of the line and was nowhere near restroom facilities. We also uncovered a nearby shopping mall with numerous crime incidents, including a recently burglarized restaurant when we discovered a jimmied front door (we called the police). 

Thus, we were able to report a crime before the owner learned about it. I spoke to him when he arrived and, naturally, the poor fellow wasn’t happy! He was the latest victim of crime in this shopping mall next to our bus stop. 

As this transport committee learns how to use the Safety Audit process, they will eventually have the capacity to conduct other safety reviews across other parts of the transportation system. 

Metro Denver bus stop location a few days ago during our Safety Audit
- many similarities to other cities


Safety audits are not new to this blog. Seven years ago, Tarah blogged on how to teach high school students the art of the Safety Audit in Every time they want to count you out – use your voice.

Four years ago I blogged on safety audits in A Tool for the Archeology of Fear. I described the mistake CPTED practitioners make when they confuse safety audits with CPTED surveys or visual checklist inspections. Some conflate Safety Audits with Jane’s Walks or Night-Out-Against-Crime. They too are wrong.

Then, two years ago, Mateja blogged on how she digitized our Safety Audit process for measuring fear in downtown Saskatoon.

What struck me this week is not how much the committee members enjoyed the Safety Audit process. That is a comment SafeGrowth advocates hear commonly during our training. Rather, the most striking thing was how similar design and location problems arise over and over at bus stops here and elsewhere. 

We have taught audits from Melbourne Australia, Christchurch New Zealand, San Diego California, and Calgary Alberta, to New York City, and Helsingborg Sweden. We usually uncover similar fear and crime opportunity risks in those cities just as they existed in Scarborough during the Paul Bernardo rapes 30 years ago. 

Will we never learn?

Monday, April 11, 2022

Headlines do not define us - Part 3

Hamilton, Ontario skyline from the Niagara Escarpment 
photo by Nhl4hamilton at English Wikipedia, Creative Commons

Last month we began a series of blogs about the impact of local news on community engagement. The first blog covered Denver, Colorado, and two weeks ago the second covered Ljubljana, Slovenia. This week we conclude with news coverage from Hamilton, Ontario.

by Tarah Hodgkinson

As with our last two blogs on crime news, much of the focus in Canada is on the war in Ukraine but, as in Denver and Ljubljana, crime stories continue. Here are some recent crime stories from Hamilton, Ontario.


In this story, a man went to meet the private and online seller of a luxury car and when he went to test drive it, locked the doors and took off with the vehicle. He is still at large. This story confirms the narrative that people should be careful selling (and buying) their items online. 

This incident demonstrates some of the unique ways offenders are adapting in order to steal cars. Since electronic immobilizers were mandated in Canada in 2007, auto theft has plummeted

This is largely because you can’t turn over the ignition without the key. As such, many offenders are finding alternative ways to access the keys to cars, such as burglary and robbery. 


In this story, police caught an armed bank robber who stole cash from two banks in Hamilton’s east end. He went into the bank, handed the teller a note saying it was a bank robbery and he was armed and took off with an undisclosed amount of cash. 

This story follows some common themes in crime reporting: it is discrete, easy to understand, and there is a clear villain and hero. Similar to the auto theft story, it is also a somewhat unique event in the 21st century. Bank robberies are far less common now that security has been improved and bank tellers have very little cash at their stations. 

Hamilton is a former steel town hard hit by COVID


In this story, police are investigating a shooting in downtown Hamilton leaving one person hospitalized. The two assailants fled the scene and the police are encouraging local residents to inspect their security cameras for any footage of the incident. 

While there is very little information provided in this story, we still see many of the criteria of newsworthiness: it is easy to understand, there is a clear victim, and the event was short-lived. It is also a rare and violent event. Shootings are incredibly uncommon in Canada, especially compared to our southern neighbours. However, these kinds of incidents have the ability to instill a sense of fear in neighborhood residents who are provided very little detail about what actually happened and if it might happen to them next. This is similar to crime stories in Denver.


You will note that all three crime stories in Hamilton are similar to those told in Ljubljana and Denver in one crucial respect – while they differ in seriousness, they are all informed by the local police. 

According to Criminologist Vincent Sacco, the police are the main source of crime news for journalists because of the relationship that is mutually beneficial. Journalists receive ongoing access to crime news and the police are positioned as the experts or “owners” of the problem. 

This may be why residents who comment about crimes in news media directly refer to police in their observations. It may also be why stories about police ineffectiveness or controversy also show up on many front pages. Residents see police and crime as intimately the same story!

The stories also fit specific criteria outlined in a Canadian criminology textbook by Sacco and Kennedy, The Criminal Event

In the "Golden Horseshoe" megalopolis of southern Ontario,
Hamilton is a city with a metro population of over 700,000 

In my master’s degree, I worked with my mentor, Dr. Sacco at Queen’s University. Sacco’s book is a well-known Canadian intro textbook. He explains that crime news often contributes to a skewed understanding of crime in our neighbourhoods. He outlines four main reasons for this:

  • There is rarely any link between the amount of crime news and the amount of crime in an area.
  • Rare crimes like violence get the most attention while common, but less interesting, crimes like property or white-collar crimes are ignored. 
  • Crime news overexaggerates the effectiveness of police by emphasizing offenses that result in arrests. 
  • Crime news ignores the extent of the criminal justice system by focusing only on the initial stages of arrest and detention. 

Sacco explains that crime news ignores the complex relationship between social conditions and crime – something we observed in all three cities. Further, there are factors that make crimes more newsworthy in all three cities of Ljubljana, Denver, and Hamilton. Crimes are newsworthy if they are short-lived, simple to understand, and predictable with dramatic narratives and clear heroes/victims/villains. 

Hamilton City Hall - an industrial city in transition


Crime reporting has significant implications for local residents in neighbourhoods. First, reporting may result in fear of crime. When citizens are afraid, they often retreat into their homes, meaning there are fewer eyes on the street and more opportunities for crime. That makes community crime prevention difficult. 

Second, when crime news creates the impression that police are the owners of the crime narrative, local residents are less inclined to engage in crime prevention because they don’t see themselves as part of the solution. This is a constant problem we confront in our SafeGrowth work. 

We believe that neighbourhood residents are among the best suited to prevent crime. We support residents in reclaiming the crime prevention narrative and we help them establish ownership over their own crime problems. SafeGrowth helps contextualize the frightening crime headlines by providing residents the tools to collect their own data and build their own understandings of crime issues, often in collaboration with local police. 

In doing so, they see the truth behind the crime stories and they analyse their fears so they can build their own local solutions. From Denver to Ljubljana to Hamilton, we are convinced that is the way forward.