More than 70 students and near-campus neighbourhood residents voiced their compliments and concerns about police enforcement and nuisance behaviour at a hearing at city hall Wednesday (Nov. 13).
The special meeting of the Town and Gown committee was called in October in the wake of the furor of controversy created by Project LEARN (Liquor Enforcement and Reduction of Noise), during which, among other things, London Police Service (LPS) officers went door-to-door collecting students’ personal information.
At the outset of the meeting, Orest Katolyk, the city’s chief of bylaw enforcement and LPS Chief Brad Duncan made formal presentations. Katolyk focused on zoning and other bylaw and building code infractions, while Duncan discussed the historical origins of Project LEARN.
He reiterated his position that the entire community needs to be a part of any solution to the problem behaviours creating “dysfunction and disharmony” in near-campus nieghbourhoods, as one town and gown committee member said.
“There has to be an expectation the (student) unions are spreading the word to the students,” he said. “The last four or five years, it’s been enforcement led. I’m not trying to be naïve, but I am an optimist and I think having this forum won’t solve anything tonight but it will start some conversations.”
Though they weren’t invited to at first, representatives from Western University’s University Student Council (USC) and Fanshawe College’s Student Union were allowed after some protest to make opening comments.
Adam Gourlay, FSU president, was particularly fiery in his criticism of the collection of personal information by police from students.
“The Fanshawe Student Union was put in an uncomfortable position as it was perceived by much of the public that we were aware of the pursuits of the (LPS),” said FSU president Adam Gourlay. “To move forward as a supporting partner of Project LEARN we need agreed upon outcomes and actions.”
Committee chair Ward 7 Councillor Matt Brown then opened the floor to the people sitting in the gallery in council chambers.
Generally speaking, the students of Western and Fanshawe who stood to speak said they felt police should drop the zero-tolerance approach to noise and nuisance enforcement. They said $600 nuisance party tickets (the words “for no reason” were repeated several times) and the intimidating presence of increased police patrols antagonize and alienate students.
Fanshawe student Kyle Parker said police on patrol in his neighbourhood “fishing” for students to hassle had stopped he and his friends during homecoming. He believes students today are paying for the transgressions of the troublemakers that instigated the St. Patrick’s Day riot of 2012.
“When I said I want to go to Fanshawe, my family always asked the same question: Isn’t that the place where they had the riot? There was a riot. I’m not going to pretend like it didn’t happen. This was two years ago. Fanshawe is a two- or three-year program school. People involved in the riot are gone out of the city.”
By contrast, most of the older London residents who spoke said students can’t expect to be treated specially or coddled as they find their way from adolescence to adulthood.
There were many calls for a collaborative approach and increased communication, things the LPS, the city and the student unions have already committed to.
Two different residents noted that landlords and real estate agents have been and continue to be missing in action from the conversation.
A professor and former chair of the city’s housing advisory committee, who lives near the campus said there is no point in educating students about their responsibilities as citizens because in the long run, they will be gone in a few months and a new batch moved in.
He said landlords create problems by cramming students into houses meant for single families, lining their pockets while the neighbourhoods they rent in fall into disrepair.
“I don’t feel invaded by students but by real estate speculators,” he said. “There needs to be more transparency in terms of how real estate and rental markets work. Think about the profit being made here. The public needs to have access to those files. I want to know who the owner of that problem property is.”
Once the floor was closed, Mayor Joe Fontana said there is a “big chasm” between residents of the city who call London a “police state” and those who paint all students as troublemakers.
“That’s not the London that I know,” Fontana said. “There has been a whole bunch of other rhetoric that says all students are bad and therefore they should be punished. I’m not sure that’s the way we want to move forward.”
He liked the comments about landlords needing to be at the table.
“It was this city that fought for three, not five, bedrooms (in a single family home) at the (Ontario Municipal Board) and won, so we could move toward neighbourhoods being for everyone. They have to be livable.”
Ward 6 Councillor Nancy Branscombe’s ward surrounds Western and she gets calls about student neighbourhood issues every day.
She disagreed that there is a huge chasm. She said Project LEARN has not been a failure, in fact she noted the town and gown committee was born of the early discussions around the enforcement initiative.
“I live smack dab in the middle of St. George and Cheapside and things have improved for me,” she said. “Let’s build on what we’ve accomplished and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”