COLD LAKE - "It's time to be proactive."
Dozens of residents and business owners filled Cold Lake council chambers on Tuesday night to hear Eleanor Evans' presentation on the impact crime is having on the local community.
Evans is the owner of a downtown business that was broken into twice in one week, which sparked her decision to reach out to her neighbours.
"I started talking to them and everyone said... ‘something has got to be done, things are happening here that we don’t want to see.’”
“Many of us have family, we have kids, grandkids, and have much investment in our community, and the escalating criminal activity and violence is having a very frightening impact on our city,” detailed Evans. “We’re afraid, we’re fearful to go into our work, and we’re increasingly fearful in our homes."
Evans was hopeful that her and her fellow business owners' cry for help would be enough to at least start the conversation.
“Citizens are angry, people’s safety and security needs to become a number one priority in our city budget,” she stressed, offering a list of possible solutions.
Hiring a private security company to conduct late night patrols, promoting a sense of pride in the community in local schools, targeting hot spots, installing video surveillance, and creating an awareness campaign were some of the options Evans offered council.
She noted, utilizing local media to report crime and inform the public about the steps the city and police are taking to address the issue is another possibility, in addition to lobbying the provincial government for stricter penalties.
Evans said, “Up until now, businesses have been reacting to criminal activity at huge expense by installing cameras, alarm systems, lights, barriers, gates, bars, fences, and bearing the ever increasing cost of insurance."
They feel, she continued, it's time for the city to step up.
“There have been enough studies done by communities all over the world facing similar situations that have shown that (these) steps are affective.”
Their preferred method of action is for council to consider bringing on a security firm to conduct nightly patrols in high crime areas, such as downtown.
“There’s got to be some private security agencies that we could hire for a period of time to make their presence known in the community, and if you’re out there breaking into someone’s store, stealing their car, or ripping their TV off of the wall of their home, someone is around and watching you."
She continued, “Private security is huge. It’s the number one, when you look at all of the different cities and towns that have put something like this into implementation, that’s what they start with."
Although business owners know the Cold Lake RCMP are doing what they can when it comes to crime, they feel more needs to be done.
Coun. Kirk Soroka told the crowd of concered residents and business owners he supports their efforts, however, the city's hands are tied when it comes to funding.
"I know the Mounties and our local peace officers are as active as they can be, but they’re resource constrained right now and likely facing additional resource constraints,” he expressed, adding ID 349 cutbacks are having a major impact on the municipality as a whole.
“I believe most of us are aware of the constraints and the money that we’re not getting, but I believe almost everyone I spoke to felt that our priorities perhaps need to change a little bit for the time being until we can clean up our city, and a lot of us feel that priority number one is our safety,” Evans replied. “We have beautification, we have a lot of really good things going on here, but if everyone is afraid to be out and in the community, then it doesn’t matter how pretty it is.”
Coun. Jurgen Grau agreed that feeling secure is a large part of a city's sustainability.
“A lot of the elements that prevent crime in a community are what happens in the schools, with sports, in the arts, and all of the different things going on. It’s not just boots on the ground… and with what we’re seeing in our budget today and what we may possibly see in the future, there’s really a bit of an attack on the sustainability of Cold Lake, because of all of the different elements that will probably be seeing a lack of funding,” Grau outlined.
Coun. Bob Buckle explained that although increasing the number of bodies through hiring additional RCMP or bringing a security company into the mix would assist with getting some criminals off of the streets, it's keeping them in custody and discouraging future crime that's an even bigger issue.
“I know from some of the other town halls I have gone to with the government, everyone was supportive of more boots on the ground, however, there was the acknowledgement that more boots on the ground isn’t just the answer… I can safely say the RCMP are probably dealing with the same five per cent of people over and over… The catch and release program happening in our court system is a huge problem and it touches on both provincial and federal jurisdiction, because until we can get a deterrence back into our system… police can keep catching them every second week… but the deterrence isn’t there."
He added, “That’s a really thorny one to deal with because it’s going to take an attitudinal change and until we get there I think we’re going to have the same problem and (the police) are going to keep dealing with the same individuals over and over again. There’s no deterrence, so when they break-in, nothing happens and there’s no fear."
Coun. Chris Vining said, “Even once you have people in custody, now what? It’s issues with getting legal aid, addictions services, mental health services, all of these things play into the structural problems that we’re having and it plays back into the catch and release cycle... Just keeping people in custody isn’t really the way we want to go, we need to be able to work through the problems that are leading to the crime going on as well."
CAO Kevin Nagoya noted another underlying issue is the lack of Crown prosecutors and court time in the region.
In the area, it's known there is a lack of Crown prosecutors, which means the ones that are working locally are dealing with a "substantial" workload.
This fact results in cases being drawn out in court, and in the end, they're either withdrawn by the Crown or end up timing out, Nagoya detailed.
“We don’t have enough court time either, so even if they added more Crown prosecutors, there’s a secondary issue that’s followed up with the justice system."
This was why Soroka urged those in attendance to write to Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul MLA David Hanson and Fort McMurray-Cold Lake MP David Yurdiga.
He said, "Push, don't back up; the more pressure you give them (the better)."
Grau stressed this isn't an issue solely experienced in Cold Lake, however, at times it does feel "like our community's under siege."
One aspect that sets Alberta apart is where crime is happening.
According to Grau, in most provinces rural crime is "denser towards the southern part of the province, whereas Alberta it seems to be farther north."
Cold Lake RCMP S/Sgt. Scott Buchanan, who attended the meeting in order to answer any questions, confirmed that is the case.
“Without referring to any hard statistics, from my knowledge, eastern and western Alberta district, which is Hwy. 16 and north, is way busier than anywhere south. There are pockets of south that are hot spots,” he stated.
Grau was pleased to see Evans present not only a problem to council, but also solutions, which they will consider before developing a strategy.
“I think there’s some unique opportunities here to look at that might make sense,” Buckle told Evans. “I just want to urge everyone to understand the deterrence factor and what’s lacking, because if you’re only dealing with repeat offenders over and over again, and they’re not getting dealt with properly by the system because we’ve made such and institution out of our prisons and jails we can’t afford to put anybody in them and they fill up fairly quickly… Now the threshold to go to jail raises."
He continued, “There’s a whole structural entity here to deal with what’s going on in our communities, and I think, until that puzzle’s been fixed, we can put more prosecutors in, more police on the streets, get private security, we could come in with all kinds of lighting opportunities to try and discourage crime and create some pride in your streets… but you’re still dealing with the same individual."