The Bonnyville and Cold Lake RCMP detachments partnered to host a rural crime town hall at the Ardmore Community Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 15. Among the panel of speakers were MD Reeve Greg Sawchuk, MD's public safety department general manager Chris Garner, Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul MLA David Hanson, and St. Paul's chief Crown prosecutor Jordan Kerr.
The event was organized in order to gain feedback from residents, discuss crime, and outline how the local detachments and municipality have been working together to combat the issue.
“The relationship building between the MD and RCMP, both locations, has been ongoing, and we’re moving in a positive direction,” explained Cold Lake RCMP S/Sgt. Scott Buchanan. “We share a lot of the goals and defined roles, where the RCMP does the criminal aspects and the MD looks after a lot of the other stuff, but we can work together.”
What’s being done to address crime
Combating rural crime has been a focus for the MD of Bonnyville.
“We want to make the MD like a frying pan, and make it so hot for criminals that it would make them go somewhere else,” noted Sawchuk. “We’re limited as to what we can do, but in working with the RCMP, hopefully it has gotten a little bit hotter and now we’re going to work on those other levels of government to help us out.”
Along with lobbying the provincial and federal governments, the MD is also part of the rural policing committee in order to get a better picture of what’s happening in their communities and how they can assist residents.
A crime analyst hired by the MD has been working with the municipality’s public safety department and Cold Lake RCMP on investigations.
“What they do is they take what we collect when we’re on the streets and they analyze it in order to find patterns and to better indicate where we should be putting our resources and who we should be paying attention to that are perhaps committing a lot of the crimes,” explained Cold Lake RCMP Cpl. Marie-Eve Mackenzie-Plante.
One example she used was a firearm discharging incident at the Cold Lake marina in 2019.
“I immediately called (the analyst) and they were able to do open source searches, which led us to contact the parents of this individual, and we were able to pass that information along to the negotiator, which was very helpful.”
Provincially, Hanson said the government is working on hiring more Crown prosecutors and extending court dates to ensure cases are addressed in a timely fashion and a higher number of charges result in convictions.
“I can imagine the frustration for the RCMP that are sitting here when they’re going through all the hard work that they do… and the guys (are being released). After all that work, watching someone beat you out the door is probably very frustrating,” Hanson noted, adding they’ve also implemented Bill 27 to protect law-abiding citizens defending their homes and vehicles against criminals.
He continued, “If a person comes onto your property, and they’re perpetrating a crime, if they’re busting through a window and get cut, too bad for them. You can’t sue the homeowner because you hurt yourself breaking into the house, but that doesn’t absolve people from taking the law into their own hands and going above and beyond.”
Kerr explained the St. Paul Crown office is one of the busiest in Alberta.
“We have anywhere from 13,000 to 14,000 charges coming in each year divided between six prosecutors. That’s a little over 2,000 charges (per) prosecutor. If you’re a prosecutor in Calgary, you can expect to have a case load of perhaps 700 charges (per) prosecutor, and if you’re in Edmonton, it’s maybe 900 charges (per) prosecutor.”
He noted rural crime is a huge problem in the area they cover, which includes Cold Lake, Bonnyville, Lloydminster, Vermilion, and Wainwright.
“It’s very much an issue that we see every day, and we’re working very hard with the resources that we have to do what we can to make sure that the people that are committing the offences go to jail and stay there,” Kerr stated.
A break down of local statistics
The MD’s public safety department has 15 staff members, including a director, sergeant, administrative assistant, one crime analyst, eight patrol officers, two school resource officers, and a crime prevention officer.
Their rural crime prevention strategies comprise of programs such as one-on-one consultations with residents, targeted crime prevention patrols, and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design assessments.
One aspect that’s proven to be popular since it was implemented two years ago is the vacant home check program, which saw 412 conducted in 2018 and 1,966 in 2019.
“It’s something that our officers spend most of their time doing now,” noted Garner. “But, the nice thing about it for us is it kind of forces us to go all over the place in the MD.”
When it comes to jurisdiction, Cold Lake officers cover the eastern half of the MD while Bonnyville RCMP looks after the western portion.
The Bonnyville detachment has 28 employees, with one staff sergeant, one sergeant, four corporals, 14 constables, six support staff, and two Victim Services Unit (VSU) staff.
The 7,181 calls for service in 2019 was around the same as 2018, which came in at 7,176.
Bonnyville S/Sgt. Sarah Parke noted the number of criminal code offences their detachment saw in the MD decreased in 2019 to 1,283 from the previous year’s 1,366. There were 242 property crimes, six drug offences, and 930 traffic offences.
Bonnyville’s overall clearance rates dipped slightly from 42 per cent in 2018 to 40 per cent in 2019.
According to Buchanan, there are 39 employees working out of the Cold Lake detachment. That includes 26 officers, the police dog unit, nine support staff, and their VSU.
Their overall calls for service in the communities they serve, which encompasses the city, MD, Cold Lake First Nations, and Elizabeth Métis Settlement, came in around 9,600 in 2019, an increase of over 900 from 2018.
In the MD, Cold Lake officers responded to 1,157 criminal code offences last year. There were 277 property crimes, 10 drug offences, and 716 traffic offences.
Buchanan described the detachment’s 30 per cent clearance rate as “pretty good because we’re looking at about 125 per cent of the provincial average criminal code investigations per member.”
“That’s detachment-wide between the city and MD,” he added.
The RCMP Police Dog Services (PDS) Unit, which services the Lakeland region, was involved in 333 files in 2019. Forty-three suspects were captured in Cold Lake and 38 in Bonnyville.
Sgt. James Morton with the Eastern Alberta District Rural Crime Reduction Unit (EADRCRU) works collaboratively with both detachments to target specific offenders in addition to conducting investigations across the province.
“I hope everybody in this room realizes how fortunate you are to have the quality of policing service that you have from the people that work in the community full-time,” he stressed. “I spend a lot of time helping out places that have like three police officers because bad guys, and this isn’t news to anybody, don’t steal everything from their neighbours. They tend to drive one or two counties over.”
Morton said their experience with the local detachments has been great due to the organization and information provided.
“We love coming here, but I’ll be honest, we don’t have to come here a lot, and that’s not to say there isn’t rural crime going on here, but, the reality is, a lot of the rural crime being committed, say in the MD or Cold Lake, those criminals are coming here from other places,” he continued.
Discussing rural crime with those impacted
The panel was open to questions and concerns from those in the audience, and a number of attendees praised the RCMP for the hard work they’ve been doing.
Paul Thurrott, MD resident, suggested having more meetings in the future.
“Most of the residents in the rural are extremely upset. They can’t change that; it’s going to be a long-term process of being out there and being nice… But, they can’t stop crime and I don’t care what anybody says, a criminal is a criminal and they’ll do it. You can’t stop them, but you can help prevent it and that’s the outcome is helping prevent it.”
A number of attendees shared their experiences with rural crime, such as Wade Magistad. He owns the Ardmore M&M Mini Mart, and said the store has been broken into six times over the last five years.
“There’s no protection here at night. Nothing’s happening and we’re getting really frustrated,” he exclaimed. “If some of the businesses in town get hit again, it’s over and there are no more stores. We can’t afford the insurance anymore.”
Sawchuk said one of the ways the MD is hoping to address these issues is through the Lakeland Crime Reduction Unit.
“Do we have all the answers yet for sure? No, but we do have the ability to have enough boots on the ground. One of the things the MD is doing is we’ve gone ahead and put in an application for three more RCMP, plus a support staff member, so we’re hopefully going to be hearing back on that by mid-summer.”
One question raised by attendees was what they could do when faced with a crime in process on their property. Although they couldn’t give many specifics, those on the panel encouraged them to call the police right away and to keep themselves and their families safe.
Cindy Kostyshyn, who also resides in the MD, felt the topics covered would help her in the future.
“I know my limits, what I should do when I see crime happening on my own property, the steps I should take instead of putting myself at risk, and some of the tools that I can use to protect myself.”
Most agreed change is needed when it comes to perpetrators that are found guilty.
“We need to have stricter support from our provincial and federal government,” stated MD resident Ann Kostyshyn.