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Residents express frustrations with Cold Lake crime

The Cold Lake RCMP hosted a Lakeland Crime Town Hall to share their stats and gain feedback from the public.

COLD LAKE – The public didn’t hold back when the Cold Lake RCMP asked for feedback on what can be done to address crime in the city. 

Residents and business owners crowded into the Lakeland Inn to share their frustrations and questions during the Lakeland Crime Town Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 26.

“We’re here to hear your ideas that we might want to bring forward as a community,” noted City of Cold Lake Mayor Craig Copeland. “Council certainly had a group that came in front of us from the business community a few weeks ago, and a lot of businesses and houses have been hit.”

The public was welcome to voice their ideas to a panel of local RCMP, City of Cold Lake, and MD of Bonnyville representatives.

The two municipalities have partnered to combat an issue MD Reeve Greg Sawchuk described as “having no boundaries.”

“Some of the folks that are committing these crimes go across borders; they don’t see the lines on the map. We’re trying to work closely with the city and Town of Bonnyville to get a better grip on this,” he told the crowd.

Cold Lake RCMP Sgt. Ryan Howrish gave an overview of their crime stats, starting with outlining who works out of the detachment.

There are 39 staff with the Cold Lake RCMP, including 26 officers, the police dog unit, nine support staff, and their Victim Services Unit (VSU).

They serve the communities of Cold Lake, the eastern part of the MD, Cold Lake First Nations, and Elizabeth Métis Settlement.

“We have a bunch of members, and whether they’re municipal members, provincial members, or the dog unit, we’re always answering calls for service when required,” Howrish noted. “Our municipal members aren’t bound to stay within the boundary of the city, and the same with our provincial members. We’re a big team, we go where the problems are.”

Their calls for service saw an increase of roughly 1,000 from 2018 to around 9,600 in 2019.

“I think that’s reflective of the kind of stuff we’re dealing with,” explained Howrish. “We also have a real strong campaign out there trying to get people to call the police and (report) when you see suspicious people in your neighbourhood or vehicles driving by… We encourage everybody to call because we need that information. You’re not putting us out, you’re providing us with good quality information that we use to solve crimes.”

About 74 per cent of those calls came from within the city limits, while 16 per cent originated from the MD, seven per cent from Cold Lake First Nations, and approximately three per cent came from the Elizabeth Métis Settlement.

In Cold Lake, the RCMP’s clearance rate for persons crimes is 56 per cent, a stat that sits around 66 per cent for the MD. In terms of Cold Lake First Nations and the Elizabeth Métis Settlement, that number is around the provincial average of 65 per cent.

Their officers' property crimes clearance rate beats the provincial average of 21 per cent at 32 per cent within the city limits and 25 per cent outside of Cold Lake, which encompasses the three rural communities within their jurisdiction.

There were a total of 3,455 criminal code offences in 2019, an increase of roughly 1,220 since 2018. Broken down, that’s 561 persons crimes, 2,066 property-related incidences, and 828 other offences, which can include breach of probation.

The Cold Lake RCMP Police Dog Services (PDS) Unit was included in 135 files. The unit responded to 68 calls in the city limits, 24 in Elizabeth Métis Settlement, 12 in Cold Lake First Nations, and 31 within the MD.

“I can’t say enough good things about Cst. Jason Jaques and Harp,” Howrish exclaimed. “I think Harp is the best dog I’ve ever worked with and Jason is a fantastic member… He’s a mentor for our members and he’s why we catch a lot of the criminals, even without the dog.”

When it comes to what’s causing a majority of the crimes in the area, Howrish stressed “it comes down to drugs.”

“The root of the problem is addictions. It’s not the drug dealers that are doing the property crimes, it’s the people that are addicted,” he detailed, adding it’s a problem that the RCMP can’t address alone.

“That’s not only a police problem, it’s more of a community problem. We recognize this, and we’re doing what we can to work with our partners in the community to respond to this.”

When the floor was open to those in attendance to share their concerns and suggestions, Cold Lake resident Paul Gullackson expressed his frustrations with the RCMP’s policy preventing officers from pursuing an offender in their vehicles.

Sharing his own experience, Gullackson described receiving a concerning call from a neighbour. Based on what he was told, Gullackson drove out to his utility trailer to find someone stealing his belongings. He followed the suspect when they tried to flee the property. The RCMP located them, and Gullackson drove behind as the police pursued. Gullackson was surprised when he found the officers a few kilometres down the road after they were forced to end their pursuit due to the public safety concerns.

“I couldn’t believe that. The officer was clearly frustrated, it was an easy chase, he had a trailer behind him, but the policy required him to stop. You hear stories like that and you wonder why we’re all frustrated,” exclaimed the Cold Lake resident. “I couldn’t believe that happened… and it’s a real snowflake policy to me. If the crook knows the policy, he knows that all he has to do is drive away and nobody’s going to chase him.”

Howrish responded, “When you have a person who may or may not be impaired by alcohol or drugs driving a vehicle that shouldn’t be driving, fast down a highway with no lights or siren, if my wife is on that highway, I wouldn’t want that guy running from the police, because what if? The what-ifs are the scenarios that we’ve all had happen, and it’s happened to me where the person being pursued gets into a crash and then you have either that person dead or an innocent person on the highway dead. We always do a risk assessment and say ‘why are we chasing this guy?’ and ‘what’s our plan?’”

Bonnyville resident Marie Ilchuk wanted more clarity on what she could do to protect her belongings.

“As homeowners, we should be able to use whatever force is necessary to protect our property,” she exclaimed.

Ilchuk was among a number of residents and business owners who stepped forward to express their frustrations, including Ed Machtmes, owner of Mach 1 in Cold Lake. He has been a victim of crime on multiple occasions over the years.

“I would like to see a little bit more of community interactiveness with our RCMP and storeowners, maybe even with our city bylaw staff. Introducing themselves to our storeowners in town and us becoming a community with that. Right now, I bet very few storeowners besides the responding members to a crime there know their police and bylaw officers in our community. I’d like to see that change,” exclaimed Machtmes.

He continued, “We need to get together as a community, and the police and city are doing everything, business owners are trying to do everything. We’re broke trying to armour up our buildings and businesses and arm ourselves up the wazoo.”

One suggestion from the public was the RCMP having a social worker at the detachment to address addictions issues. This was a proposal Cpl. Marie-Eve Mackenzie-Plante thought could work.

“That’s actually a really great suggestion, and we’re always open to innovation. I think that through innovation we’re going to find different ways, and I think the RCMP is really moving toward that… I know that harm reduction… (can) target some of the ones that basically cause some of the issues that can be addressed.”

When it comes to what residents and business owners can do to deter crime, tips ranged from keeping a record of your belongings to installing cameras. Motion-sensor lights are another deterrent.

Robynne Henry, Bonnyville Nouvelle

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