By Terrance Kondo, Police Officer
Austin has Sixth Street. Portland, Ore., has Old Town. And Vancouver has Granville. Police patrolling party districts like these in mid-sized cities are, for the most part, on the lookout for the dangerously drunk, the argument about to flare into a fistfight or an occasional robbery. But those officers are also keeping an eye out for the kind of violence making headlines across North America.
There were 17 vehicle ramming attacks worldwide between 2014 and 2017, killing 173 people. These attacks—during the Bastille Day celebration in Nice or at a Christmas market attack in Berlin—often take place at the perimeter of districts where people let their hair—and their guards—down.
But a tourist shambling down Granville Street at 11 p.m. with a belly full of beers and burgers should be worried only about where to spend their next dollar. After all, scared travelers stay home. That’s why cities large and small are looking for ways to wave visitors in while deterring bad actors.
Consider two approaches taken by New York City. During its New Year’s Eve Celebration in Times Square, police lined an extended perimeter with sanitation trucks to keep away would be rammers. The message was clear: Don’t even try it. Revelers, already intent on spending their night in a high-risk location, were undeterred. Just a few days later, the city announced it would install an additional 1,500 concrete bollards to stop the kind of attack that killed eight people along the West Side Highway in 2017. These lower profile deterrents may not register with pedestrians, but attackers may take note.
Smaller cities don’t often have the budget for such undertakings. Instead, departments have to adapt these tactics to safeguard crowds with the budgets and personnel they have to keep the public safe.
Back in the 1990s, when larger cities were forming organized crime task forces to drive down gang violence, the Vancouver Police Department instead formed The Bar and Restaurant Watch, a community initiative that kept an eye out for gang activity in its entertainment district. These days, the group has extended its surveillance to keep an eye out for other potential threats.
Today, the Vancouver Police Department is adding even more existing resources in the fight.
In Vancouver, the department deploys about 10 officers to keep the peace in the five city blocks that swell with thousands of visitors every Friday and Saturday night. They do an admirable job, but just a short time ago those patrolmen were working a perimeter barricaded only with plastic bollards. The department realized that’s simply not sufficient to prevent a vehicle ramming attack.
Taking a cue from larger cities, Vancouver PD began using large vehicles as imposing physical barriers in hopes to deter vehicle rampages. On a typical weekend evening, the department staggers police cars in a slalom formation called a chicane that slows—but doesn’t stop—normal traffic. Those vehicles are supplied with carbinerifles assigned to 10-officer detail. Where the stationary vehicles are positioned to slow or stop a high-speed vehicle, the officers are trained to take the driver down.
Not that the visitors notice. The patrol cars don’t look entirely out of place, and crowds move freely.
Anyone who’s been to New York City will recognize the tactic. And while no one would confuse Granville for Times Square, they may be surprised to see a smaller city police department working the same solutions as a metropolis of 8.5 million.