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Concerns voiced at rural crime town hall

Posted on March 20, 2018 by Sunny South News
RCMP Rural Crime TH(Photo by Nikki Jamieson)

Nikki Jamieson
Sunny South News

The recent surge in rural crime has left homeowners frustrated over seemingly little action.

At a town hall on rural crime on Saturday, March 10, in Nobleford, landowners raised their frustrations to RCMP officers, the local MLA, community crime watchers and citizens on patrol members.

Addressing the crowd of over 45 people, Little Bow MLA Dave Schneider noted that as landowner himself, he understood their concerns on the rise in crime in rural areas.

“As far as the UCP is concerned, we are seeing far more communication in the last six months about rural crime, and it has replaced the carbon tax as the top issue for people in rural Alberta for certain,” said Schneider.

“Rural crime appears not only in farms and ranches, but hamlets, villages and towns as well.”

In response to concerns they’ve been hearing, the UCP asked for an emergency debate last November, but were told because “the motion didn’t meet the legislative’s emergency debate criteria, that we could not be able to bring that motion forward”.

“Now folks I’m not going to get political, I’m just going to say that if the premier was worried about rural crime that day, I believe that the two house leaders could have met and said ‘Okay, we got a full slate for this week, but about Tuesday next week at  three o’clock in the afternoon?’, something like that, just shooting from the hip here,” said Schneider.

“That did not happen, so I’ve got to say from our perspective, very little input, very little, I don’t know what the word is, they didn’t seem to care near as much as the UCP party does.”

As a result of this apparent inaction, UCP MLAs began hosting town halls to discuss rural crime over the past few months, and launched a task force to look into the issue last year.

Schneider says the party plans on using the information gathered at the town halls to create a report and a plan to tackle rural crime.

Local RCMP stressed the need to take precautions and not make your vehicles an easy target.

Picture Butte RCMP cst. Tanis Asmussen told the audience that on Jan. 30 she checked cars in Picture Butte.

The first car she checked was unlocked and had the cell phone and a wallet in the vehicle. Out of the 50 vehicles she checked, two had their keys in the ignition and 12 were left unlocked.

She had repeated the exercise in Nobleford, and although the first vehicle she checked was locked, she still found nine vehicles that were left unlocked.

“Right now the issues is in the (rural) areas, are that people are leaving their vehicles unlocked, and a lot of keys in the ignition are making it easy for people to take stuff from your vehicles or take your vehicles,” said Asmussen.

“What they’re doing is they’re going around and pulling on car door handles, and if yours is locked, they’re moving onto the next vehicle, because there is going to be one unlocked in the town or out rurally.”

She urged people to not leave not to leave their keys in the car, as thieves will break a window to gain access to the car then, to keep valuables out of sight or out of the car and keep track of your spare keys.

She noted that rural areas are attracting thieves from larger centers because they know that doors are left unlocked due to a “perceived safety” that people living in rural areas have had.

“I’m from a small town myself on a farm, I never locked my car. But we can’t do that anymore, because they know that we’re doing that.”

In February, every RCMP district set up a rural crime reduction unit.

Southern Alberta district chief superintendent Bernadine Chapman said that the units have been dealing with intelligence, so they can target the people committing these crimes in rural areas, and have caught some of the alleged perpetrators already.

“They are what we would call prolific offenders,” said Chapman. “Our success rate in southern Alberta in the first month has been phenomenal. So in the first week since this team stood up — and this is just with our own resources we had in place through our entire district — we brought in four constables that we seconded, we took them from whatever detachment or area that could allow them to leave without impacting that detachment area. We brought the team in, and first week, they arrested an individual that had over sixty-some warrants, and the amount of criminal code charges against him were phenomenal.”

On Friday, March 9, the province invested funds to pay for 39 additional RCMP officers throughout the province to tackle the rural crime problem. That means that the southern Alberta district will get eight additional officers to focus on rural crime.

Chapman spoke on the success of rural crime watch organizations, and the collaborations between different organizations.  However, she did stress that people should not approach suspicious vehicles, as they could be putting themselves in danger.

“You need to allow the police, you need to call the police and let us handle it,” said Chapman. “If you have someone on your property, you have to understand that you have to assess the situation as we do. We cannot handle any situation that we come across and deal with it with an inappropriate enforcement tactic. It doesn’t matter. So, if we’re on the hook, we’re just as liable, and I really want to impress upon you to please don’t take anything into your own hands and put yourself in jeopardy.

“Make a phone call. If it’s stealing your vehicle, it’s stealing your vehicle. You need to keep yourself and your family safe.”

Taking questions, a lot of attendees took the opportunity to voice their frustrations with response times. One rural resident said that if she locked vehicles on her property, she’s “kind of asking them to find a way into the garage, find a way into the house”. It would take 30 minutes at least for an officer to respond if she called 9-1-1, and asked what she should do then if they entered her home, saying although she understood threat it is a criminal offense to point a weapon at or shoot at someone, could they fire a warning shot into the ground, or what are their options. She said what they need is a change in the legal system, where people are kept in jail and not running around “on their 46th or 49th offense”.

Chapman said every situation would be different, but advised calling 9-1-1 and getting to a safe part of your house. Although she acknowledge that you had to protect yourself if someone is attacking you, but she “cannot speak to you personally taking a firearm and using the firearm for a warning shot or whatever in a situation, not knowing what that situation is”.

“You have to keep yourself safe, but we can’t endorse taking action into your own hands, that’s inappropriate to what’s taking place,” said Chapman. “It’s going to put you in a situation, and it’s also going to put you in a situation where — as Tanis (Asmussen) said, and I think we discussed here as well — is that these individuals, we just have no idea what they’re capable of. So, you have a safe place in your house, lock in, you call 9-1-1, you make noise, you call  a neighbor, you let somebody know immediately that this is what’s happening, you get a gate on the front your property, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with surveillance, I think that helps the police, because the police can see it whether you use it for prosecution or not, it’s still a tool.

“I can’t speak about the justice side, that’s totally out of our hands.”

Although some attendees did tip their hat to the RCMP, frustrations were raised over the 9-1-1 calls themselves. One attendee said no one came when he called, while others said the operator couldn’t tell where they were when they gave them the address or location, and they had wasted precious time explaining no, I’m not there, I’m here and literally giving step-by-step directions to their place.

Attendees also touched on a recent case from Okotoks, where rural homeowner Edouard Maurice is facing charges after firing at a suspected thief on his property. No charges have been proven in court yet for either party, but one attendee noted that if found guilty, Maurice is facing 15 years in prison, while the suspected thief he shot is facing up to five years, although another attendee asked “what fantasy world are you living in”, saying the thief would likely get out before a year is up.

Another resident noted that they didn’t know the police officers in their community, asking if it was a generational thing. Chapman agreed that their officers — especially new ones — needed to get more involved in the community.

Although the RCMP does urge people not to take matters into their own hands, there are still ways from a community to take an active part in helping to keep their community safe. Alberta Rural Crime Watch Association board member Conrad Van Hierden said in the area around Fort MacCleod, about 15 years ago, the community and the local RCMP decided that they “had issues” and “got together as rural people and did something about it”. A few years later, the town approached them for help and they formed the Community Crime Prevention Advisory Committee.

“We are the eyes and ears of the RCMP. We don’t get out and chase people down the road, but if we see somebody on our road, we’re pull over and ‘What are you doing here’, get the license plate or take a picture and send it on. And all those little tips make a big difference,” said Van Hierden, adding the chapter joined under the provincial umbrella.

Alberta Rural Crime Watch Association board member Rosemary Lindsay said that the provincial association have a memorandum of understanding with the K division of the RCMP, which lays out what the RCMP agree to do to help them and vice-versa.

“Through a Rural Crime Watch Association, it’s a dialogue that can happen that can lead to results and lead to a strong and engaged and knowledgeable community,” said Lindsay. “As you’ve heard today, they can’t be everywhere, the RCMP can’t be everywhere, and the more that the information is phoned in, the more connected and engaged that a community is in, then the better it is for everybody.”

Another way to get involved is through Citizens on Patrol. McNally Citizens on Patrol member Jeri Trautman said that she used to be part of a rural crime watch group, but found the flow of information to be too controlled by the RCMP, although she could understand why it was. Rural crime watch members also fluctuated, with groups setting down when there wasn’t much activity.

With Citizens on Patrol, they share the information more freely. Using the example of a dog going missing, and someone spots a suspicious vehicle, they can share that information with others.

“We put it out, your neighbours know about it and they can respond to you immediately, then you know if that’s worth calling the RCMP about,” said Trautman. “I don’t want to waste the RCMP member’s time if it’s just somebody just walking their dog. This gives us a little bit more communication between ourselves opposed to, the Rural Crime Watch I find is member driven, is RCMP driven, and we don’t control the information ever. So we go through methods where we control information.”

Schneider warned the crowd that it will take time before they begin to see definitive results, or even for the task force to get going, as that is just “the way thing works, the way government works, I hate to say it”.

“This is how you begin the process folks, and the process takes a long time,” said Schneider. “I’m a rural guy too, as I said. I’ve had crime on my own property more then once.”

He urged people to write  “scathing” letters with their concerns to either the solicitor general or his office, and he’ll forward it to the appropriate people.

“Do you know how we slowed Bill 6 down? People stood on the steps on the legislator, and that’s not possible when you live as far away as we do down here, I get it. But it takes notice. If 300,000 letters were written? That makes a little bit of an impact. If we table 87,000 letters as a UCP caucus, that makes an impact. It’s people, that will make this change, and you’re doing it right.”

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