More than 1,700 people were assaulted unprovoked by a stranger in past year, Vancouver police review finds

·6 min read
Ray Hsu, the victim of an attack by a stranger in 2017, is pictured in West Vancouver. Hsu says he was shaken by the attack and the lack of reaction by witnesses. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)
Ray Hsu, the victim of an attack by a stranger in 2017, is pictured in West Vancouver. Hsu says he was shaken by the attack and the lack of reaction by witnesses. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)

Ray Hsu remembers being worried enough about the man who followed him off a Vancouver bus four years ago to try to take a picture of him.

The next thing he knew, he was being physically attacked.

It was broad daylight. There were witnesses, but Hsu says none of them lifted a finger to help.

That was 2017.

Four years later, Hsu still remembers the impact of the stranger's unprovoked attack.

"Definitely, for me, there were moments when it was hard for me to feel like a person who was right in the world, especially if I was passing by the location — the intersection — where the assault happened," Hsu said.

The assault lasted seconds, but Hsu says it took years for him to feel normal again.

'Let that number sink in'

Hsu's was one of 4,048 assaults recorded by Vancouver's police department in 2017 — a figure that doesn't really stand out in a year-by-year comparison of the period from 2014 to 2019, which saw the annual number of assaults in the city range from 3,920 to 4,535.

But in the past 12 months, Vancouver police say, they have been concerned enough about the frequency of the type of assault Hsu suffered — a random, unprovoked assault by a stranger — to dig deeper into the statistics.

A review of assaults reported to the Vancouver Police Department from Sept. 1, 2020, to Aug. 31, 2021, found approximately 1,555 "unprovoked stranger assaults" involving 1,705 victims, the police said.

"Let that number sink in," a police spokesperson wrote in a series of tweets. "The majority of victims were simply going about their day: running errands, walking, or visiting our city."

The assaults that occurred during the time examined by police range in severity from punches to life-threatening stabbings.

Examples cited by the VPD include: a man running errands having his throat cut when he was attacked from behind; an "erratic and violent male" assaulting several people waiting for the bus; a stranger reaching through an open car window to punch the driver in the nose before following and tackling an elderly man.

Const. Tania Visintin told the CBC it took three months to complete the review, which was prompted by anecdotal observations of officers comparing notes at a daily morning meeting held to discuss the events of the night before.

"As each day was passing, it seemed like every day, there was a stranger attack or multiple in one night," she said.

"So we ran stats."

Nearly a third of suspects likely had mental illness

Visintin says police analysts defined an unprovoked attack as one in which assailant and victim had no previous interaction, the initial encounter lasted only about 15 seconds and the assault could be considered unreasonable given the circumstances.

A series of random attacks have made headlines in the past decade, most notably, two in 2012 — one involving a stabbing in a coffee shop and the other a brutal assault in the Downtown Eastside on three women, aged 63, 79 and 87, respectively.

Rafferty Baker/CBC
Rafferty Baker/CBC

Those two cases resulted in trials that revealed that the offenders suffered from mental illness.

Police have not identified suspects in all cases.

But 28 per cent of the suspects they have identified in the assaults that were part of the review appeared to be living with mental illness; 47 per cent of the cases involved weapons and 28 per cent of the victims were female.

Visintin says it's the first time the department has pulled out the statistics on unprovoked stranger attacks from the general figures on assaults, so it's hard to say if the numbers are going up or down.

But the upshot is that the numbers average out to more than four people a day being attacked by someone they don't know in locations that are as random as the violence itself, and police say that's cause for concern.

More policing not the answer, say some

Fatima Jaffer was walking along the seawall in Vancouver last May when an irate stranger threatened her. The man was later accused of screaming and trying to kick several other individuals in the area.

She was shocked, but she said that as a resident of the the city's West End, she wasn't surprised. The neighbourhood abuts the popular tourist destination of Stanley Park, but Jaffer says it also has its share of homeless and marginalized people.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

She says a lack of services and the isolation of COVID-19 restrictions have put stress on individuals already struggling with mental illness.

Jaffer said she didn't call police because she didn't want to make things worse by pointing authorities to someone she suspected was already struggling with mental health problems who might be the target of racial discrimination.

It turned out that Jaffer's concerns were justified. Vancouver police officers responding to calls about the assault from the other victims ended up mistakenly handcuffing B.C.'s first Black Supreme Court justice, who happened to be on the seawall at the time.

They had been searching for a suspect half his age whom witnesses had described as "dark-skinned" and later apologized to the judge and insisted that it was not a case of racial profiling.

Jaffer says unprovoked attacks on strangers are a serious issue that the public should be concerned about, but she doesn't think the answer is more police or a more heavy-handed approach.

Visintin says police have a duty to notify the public about threats to their safety.

"As police, we're in the realm of public safety, That's our mandate is to protect lives, to protect property," she said.

"When we notice this kind of trend, we need to report on it. There's no other underlying motive for that. Purely, this is our job ... to keep the public safe and informed."

'It was easy for me to be cynical'

A video shot from a car captured the attack on Hsu at the corner of Main and King Edward in Vancouver. The clip shows the poet and creative writing professor struggling to stay upright as a stranger punches and pulls him.

Hsu says he called for help, but no one came to his aid. After he went public with his experience, he says, he was inundated by messages of support from people who said they wished they could have helped.

He has since co-founded a counselling service by partnering with a registered clinical counsellor. The business is aimed at making counselling more accessible.

Hsu says the response he received from others after the attack was overwhelming but ultimately helped him regain his faith in humanity.

"Having all the support of people around me after the assault — even if it took energy to manage that, I think that did help me to re-adjust back to being a normal person again," he said.

"I'm actually convinced that was necessary given that it was easy for me to be cynical."

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