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Calgary Conversations Episode 2: Community safety with Kay Choi

Episode 2 Kay Choi

A conversation on community safety with The City of Calgary's Community Safety and Wellbeing Lead Kay Choi.

Calgary is a growing and diverse city. The population growth means our city faces pressures like never before. Diverse backgrounds and life experiences shape our sense of safety. Crime and violence on transit, social disorder, and concerns stemming from addiction or mental health can contribute to an uneasy atmosphere.

We are working to remove these barriers by ensuring Calgarians feel safe, connected, supported, and that they belong. In this podcast episode, we talk about our investments in people, public spaces and emergency response and enforcement.

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A conversation on community safety with Kay Choi.

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Podcast transcript below.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

Welcome to Calgary Conversations, a podcast of The City of Calgary, where we aim to have frank conversations with city leaders about the issues and topics impacting Calgarians.

My name is Jose Rodriguez. I am leader of media relations and employee communications at The City.

I'm happy to be your host.

Welcome. And if you're hearing this, we've made it to Episode 2 of Calgary Conversations. We received a lot of feedback from our first episode with Chief Administrative Officer David Duckworth, and we welcome that feedback. Please reach out to us at CalgaryConversations@calgary.ca. Today we're going to dig into something that's very important to all Calgarians, and that is community safety.

And we are super happy to have the City of Calgary Community Safety and Wellbeing Lead Kay Choi with us here today. So. Okay. Welcome.

KAY CHOI

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

So, before we start, we like to introduce people to some of our guests. So maybe you can tell us a little bit about yourself and your job.

KAY CHOI

Yeah, my name is Kay Choi, and I've been with The City for 27 years. The only major city that I've ever known, immigrated here to the city of Calgary back in 1976 and seen the city grow, understand the importance of safety, and want to be a part of, creating a more safe and welcoming city, for Calgarians.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

Think we're a couple of 1976’ers. I am also an immigrant who came here in 1976, and I don't think we broke 500,000 people by then. We were probably maybe right around that area.

So, a lot has changed. One of the things that is on the top of the minds of many Calgarians is public safety, community safety, whatever we want to call it.

Part of your portfolio is to help us navigate that. Maybe you can talk about that a little bit.

KAY CHOI

Sure. So, I started this portfolio back in October of 2023, and one of the very first things that we did was we convened leaders from across the corporation, and we asked the tough questions, what is it that you're doing now? What is it that you want to be doing? And then what we did was we identified some of the gaps.

And so we spent the first 30, 60, 90 days, taking a look at what some of the services and programs that we are offering to Calgarians and along the way identified areas that we needed to do a little bit better. But let me tell you something. My colleagues across The City of Calgary and our partners are doing a great job.

And really, the only thing that I am doing is amplifying the work of the great work that's already been done.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

So, what did you find in that 30, 60, 90 analysis that you did; where what are some of the spots that The City needs to invest in or divest of?

KAY CHOI

So, one of the key things that we identified quite early on is that we needed to tell our story to Calgarians. And so, some of the great work was happening in amongst across services. And so one of the very first things that we did was we, had we created a landing page or a website for Calgarians to look into, so that we had a holistic story, and was able to, you know, tell what it is that we are doing on a regular basis.

I think the other gaps that we identified; and it’s not necessarily a gap; but that we’re incredibly humble, that we do such great work in The City of Calgary and we’re really good at keeping it a secret. And that's the job that I'm doing right now, is telling Calgarians about all the great work that is being done, currently, right now, to improve safety and the perceptions of safety.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

When you talk about safety, downtown safety, community safety, people want to know, how are we making a difference? So, if I felt unsafe coming downtown (for lack of a better community) last week, why should I feel safer today?

KAY CHOI

I think one of the things that we need to be doing better is to define exactly what is safety and what the perceptions of safety are. Let me tell you right now that our crime stats, our calls for service for social disorder, are better. I just recently looked at how we're doing in quarter one of 2024 compared to Q1 2023, and our calls for service for crimes and social disorder has gone down by over 50%.

Pretty darn good.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

And I think police just put out something recently where 38% of the violent assaults along transit were also down, compared to the same period last year. So are these incremental, I guess, changes making a difference? How do we tell Calgarians that, you know, for the most part, it's safe to be in this city? It's a safe city.

KAY CHOI

And I think this is why I'm grateful to be here, for us to tell Calgarians through yourself and through other mediums that know Calgary is safe. when it comes to, you know, some of the stats that I've showed you, but also the perceptions of safety, we're moving the needle on perceptions of safety. What I do know is that Calgarians feel a lot safer today than they did six months ago.

When it comes to safety on transit, over 70% of Calgarians think or feel it's that they're safe on, in and around transit during the day.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

One of the things a lot of Calgarians notice is that there are mental health concerns in the community. There is a large unhoused population. How are we helping address those problems?

KAY CHOI

We can brag and tell people all of the good work that we are doing about improving the presence of enforcement officers. And, you know, having quicker response times, that's all downstream investments. And what we need to do equally well, and why it's important that this portfolio be called community safety and well-being, is that we have to invest in our upstream programs and services.

So, we need to be able to make sure that the folks that are vulnerable, that they have the programs and services so that we can be preventative. So that we; for our future; looks like we have a safer Calgary.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

So that's an important mix that you're talking about there because you can't have enforcement alone. And you also can't have programing and dealing with the big picture, if you will, alone. So how important is it for those to work together. And is it a 50/50 split? A 60/40 split? How do we view that?

KAY CHOI

I think what we need to do is make sure that it's a balanced approach. You know, this time last year, Calgarians were saying that they needed more visibility and presence of our uniformed officers, and City Council invested heavily in our transit public safety strategy that resulted in more presence, more uniform presence in and around transit that resulted in improved response times that resulted in increased ridership.

Quite frankly, because the more safe Calgarians feel around transit, the more that they're willing to take transit. At the same time, though, we listened to Calgarians when it came to response. What we also need to be doing is investing in our upstream services, investing in our programs, investing in these spaces. If you recall this past winter, through Council's investment, we opened up over 400 daytime spaces for Calgarians experiencing vulnerabilities in extreme weather. That is just as important, not only for those that are experiencing vulnerabilities because they have a warm space to stay, but also for preventative because in warm spaces, we provided them programs and services to get them the help that they need so that they can, connect, you know, connecting them to housing, connecting them to support services.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

Okay. You mentioned it a little while ago that it isn't it isn't just us. It isn't just The City of Calgary. We have a lot of very able partners out there who are helping us with this fight. Maybe talk about them a little bit.

KAY CHOI

Sure. So, I mean, we can't do it alone. I think when we want, you know, to have a safe Calgary, more safe Calgary or we want to invest in community safety and well-being, it's a shared responsibility. So, it's not just The City of Calgary. We work very closely with our partners, our partners in social services, our partners in the Calgary Police Service, quite frankly.

So, some of the offerings, that we have in partnership with our social service agencies is that we partner on enforcement officers, so Bylaw, Transit, even the Calgary Police Service, with social supports, and they go out into, those sleeping rough, those who are sheltering at transit stations at the end of line. And we engage with those folks, we want to connect those folks to the services that they need.

If they need a ride to shelters, move them around to shelters, if they need, you know, contacts within social services, we will establish those contacts. And so we work very closely with our external partners because it is a shared responsibility.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

There are some folks out there that it doesn't matter what investments we do or how many uniforms we put out there; it's never good enough. It's not going to be good enough.

They want to be critical. They say they don't feel safe. What does a win in this look like for The City of Calgary?

KAY CHOI

You know, like I acknowledge that, I can define safety for you and I can define the perceptions of safety for you. I can define, you know, feeling uncomfortable with those who are unwell. I can make all of those definitions. However, if somebody does not feel safe, whether it is on transit, whether it is walking downtown alone, that is something that The City needs to action; that The City should be taking seriously.

And what I can tell you is that we are taking it seriously. What is a win is that we have all Calgarians feel safe here in the city.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

You talked about investments. Can you tell us a little bit about some of those?

KAY CHOI

Council invested very heavily in October of last year, in the public safety transit strategy, it was about $15 million to improve the safety, to decrease crime, decrease social disorder in and around transit. And so we responded, we took action. Part of that was we increased the number of uniformed personnel. they gave us the extra funds for 65 peace officers.

I can tell you that the majority of those peace officers have been hired. And the remaining will be hired and will be deployed at the end of this year. We also took action by improving response times for the same transit officers. And so earlier on this year, we deployed our transit officers strategically through the line, through our transit system line so that we can improve on our response times.

And we also increased ridership because like I said, you know, if we've got a clean system, we've got a safe system, more folks will take transit. I believe by Q1 of this year, our ridership is about 96 to 97 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. It's pretty awesome.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

It's great. And you mentioned the moving to a district model for that response time to happen, the additional officers. So that is very much the enforcement investments, if you will. Can you tell us a little bit about the other side of investments?

KAY CHOI

And what we've done with it was about $9 million that was invested in our upstream, and that was something that Council took very seriously. And so, what we're doing with that is, we've invested in our extreme weather response, that resulted in over 400 daytime warming spaces. That was only for extreme weather. But what I can tell you is that we are monitoring; we used extreme weather rather than cold weather, because we know that we've got extreme weather during the summer months, whether it's extreme heat, whether it's wildfires, so much other things.

And what we want to do is we’ll monitor what we activate with our partners when it comes to that. We've also invested in, mental health and addiction strategy. And so, we're going to be making sure that our grassroots organizations, people who are providing programs and services to those who are at risk, have the funds to be able to, you know, run their programs and services effectively.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

Nice. Is there anything you want to share? I'm asking all the questions here.

KAY CHOI

Recently, our Downtown Safety Leadership Table in March, they came forward with 28 recommendations. And so, what we've been doing over the course of the past 30 days is reviewing those recommendations. And so we are well-positioned to deliver on those recommendations. But I can tell you is that a third of those recommendations; we're well-placed to deliver on those within the year.

A third of those recommendations, we're seeking right now to see if we can get additional funding, additional time for us to work on those. And the remaining third, we're going to take into consideration for the future.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

Now, as part of that leadership table, I think there was talk of a downtown police station. And there was also talk about increasing safety on our plus 15 walkways. Can you tell us anything about those two?

KAY CHOI

Yeah. And so I mean, it was a varied group of recommendations. What I do know about the downtown hub for enforcement is that was something was that work was already underway through the success of the Stephen Avenue Safety Hub and also the East Village Safety Hub. What we wanted to do was create something a little bit; those were pilots and something that, you know, our citizens can go to if they needed a question asked if they needed, you know;

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

To feel safe. Just a place to feel safe. Sometimes you walk in, you can feel safe.

KAY CHOI

That's right. the other one I forgot.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

So, the other one that I remember from that report were the plus 15 walkways and increasing safety there.

KAY CHOI

So, what I can tell you is that we have our partners in The City who have said that this was work that was already underway. And so, I haven't done a deep dive into where we're at with that. But we feel as so with additional resources and maybe some additional time. That is something for us to have, something that we can explore and something that we're willing to move on.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

You mentioned the unhoused population and extreme weather events. You can't come downtown without seeing a large unhoused population. Part of that is mental health and addictions. How much of that is housing? Just having a house that you can afford to live in?

KAY CHOI

It's a great question. Let me put it this way. If you were forced out of your house; without any access to your house until 6:00 at night, what would you do? I would try to find a safe place. I would try to find an outlet to plug in my phone. I would try to maybe get access to a computer, internet, so many I can apply for jobs. I strongly believe that the folks that are sleeping rough; is primarily a housing issue. And I am so incredibly pleased that Council invested in the Home is Here, Calgary’s Housing Strategy. because I truly believe that we need to get more non-market homes for those who are sleeping rough right now.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

How important is it to give Calgarians a regular update of what we are doing? and again, it goes to that perception. Maybe I am 100% safe, but if I don't feel safe, then I'm not safe.

KAY CHOI

I think it's imperative. Calgarians have asked us what it is that we're doing. And we, while we're doing incredible work, all services are doing incredible work. We're not showcasing that enough. We're not telling people enough. And so, it is incredibly important. It's more important that we tell Calgarians what we're doing in plain language and frankly, and so, moving away from City speak and being really able to tell the story in a way that matters to Calgarians. And so, I think that's half the battle, is to be able to sit there and tell Calgarians about the great work that we are doing, because Calgarians, quite frankly, they understand. And, you know, when you keep people updated on what it is that they're doing, they understand that it takes time.

They understand to get quality results takes a little bit of time, and people are understanding. I think the worst thing that we can do is tell Calgarians that we’re doing nothing, and that’s not the case.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

Yeah, that would definitely build a sense of confidence that we're moving in the right direction. And nobody likes to be spoken to in bureaucrat-ize. So, I'm all for the plain language, that's for sure. is there anything else that you'd like to share with Calgarians about your very important role at The City?

KAY CHOI

I think the one thing that I would like to tell Calgarians is that we're committed. We hear you. We're committed, and I have a North Star. And that's to make sure, you know, that's to ensure that all Calgarians feel safe.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

So, Kay, despite all that amazing work and big investments, we still have a long ways to go, don't we?

KAY CHOI

You're absolutely right. We are moving the needle; we’re moving the needle when it comes to perceptions of safety; we’re moving the needle in the right direction when it comes to the decrease in crimes and social disorder. But we still have a long way to go. And it's a shared responsibility. We need Calgarians to come out to create that vibrancy, to activate our downtown, to activate our communities. We can’t do it alone. We have still a ways to go.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

Strength in numbers. Thank you for your time today.

KAY CHOI

Okay. Thanks for having me.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ

Thank you for joining us today. As always, we value your feedback.

So please reach out to us at calgaryconversations@calgary.ca and tell us what topics you'd like covered and questions you'd like answered.

Until next time, be kind to yourselves. Be kind to each other. And if you see someone without a smile today, give ‘em yours.

Categories: Downtown, Safety