City looking into cost of installing surveillance cameras at downtown transit station

A bus driver waits for passengers to board at Prince Albert's downtown transit station. -- Herald file photo

Prince Albert city council has asked the administration to look into the cost of installing surveillance cameras at the downtown transit station to improve passenger and driver safety.

The move comes after the transportation department decided to remove benches from the sheltered area in an attempt to dissuade non-riders from waiting there.

Mayor Greg Dionne said he’s received numerous complaints from residents who think the City made the wrong call. He views surveillance cameras as a way to improve safety in the area, without reducing comfort for vulnerable residents who want the benches back.

“I’ve got quite a few seniors phoning me saying, ‘why are we all being punished for some other person’s bad behavior?’” Dionne said during Monday’s executive committee meeting. “‘Could you not put a security guard there for a week and chase them all away? But instead of doing that, you chose to take out the benches,’ and some of them said it didn’t solve the problem. It’s still there.”

Dionne wasn’t the only councillor who took calls about the City’s decision to remove the benches after reports of altercations between bus drivers and non-riders who gathered there.

Couns. Charlene Miller and Terra Lennox-Zepp said their constituents would rather see a security guard stationed at the transit hub to deter non-riders from gathering there.

Others, like Ward 3 Coun. Tony Head, said he’d received few complaints, but was still opposed removing the benches because it punished transit riders for a problem they didn’t create.

“I do think it was a knee-jerk reaction by us, and I do want to see those benches back,” he said during the meeting.

Ward 5 Coun. Dennis Ogrodnick said something obviously had to be done to protect the drivers, but like Miller, Lennox-Zepp and Head, he wasn’t happy with the solution. He said the City has other problems, like poverty and homelessness, which create problems like this one. He said the provincial and federal governments need to do more to help solve those problems.

The City has faced strong criticism from local community groups for removing the benches, with some saying it unfairly targets homeless people who have nowhere to gather during the day.

Ward 4 Coun. Don Cody pushed back against that criticism during Monday’s meeting, arguing the City never singled out homeless people as the problem.

“Homeless people are good people…. It’s the thugs out there who shouldn’t be there in the first place—that’s our problem,” Cody said. “Our problem is not the homeless. Those poor folks don’t have a spot to go, and it’s not them who’s there using those benches. It’s the people who are there to make trouble.”

Coun. Blake Edwards said removing the benches wasn’t the ideal solution, but he’s heard positive feedback from riders who say it’s working as intended.

City of Prince Albert transportation manager Kerri Sapsford said she’s also had positive feedback from bus drivers, who say removing the benches has made them feel safer on the job.

“They did indicate that they feel there’s not as many people down there as there used to be,” Sapsford told council. “They’re getting their customers coming on to the bus indicating that they’re really glad that something is being done. That’s why it was a ‘let’s see what happens’ (decision), and for the drivers, it seems to be working.”

Since removing the benches, Sapsford said they’ve seen a stronger police presence in the area, which has helped deter further altercations. She also said they plan to have drivers meet with police to discuss de-escalation tactics.

The City of Prince Albert has outward facing surveillance cameras on all city buses, but none in the downtown transit hub.