LAC LA BICHE - Lac La Biche RCMP representatives weren't invited to a recent rural crime meeting in Hylo — but they are aware of the issues facing rural residents when it comes to crime, and they're ready to help in any way they can.
Lac La Biche RCMP detachment commanding officer Staff Sgt. Jerry Nutbrown says that despite a reduction in the numbers of rural crimes being reported, his members continue to focus attention on rural policing. While some at the September 13 Hylo meeting complained about a lack of police presence in their community — where they say a significant increase in crime is continuing — Nutbrown says the area is part of his detachment's "regular rolling pro-active patrols."
"We encourage our members to get out, get off the pavement and onto the gravel to drive around," he said, explaining it as an expected part of the police force's duties with maintained patrol logs filled out during each shift.
Despite those efforts, Nutbrown understands how residents may not realize that patrols are done in their areas.
"That's legitimate because it takes all of 10 seconds to roll by a property. You may not see us — or if you're not awake at two in the morning or three in the morning, you may not see our vehicle roll by," he said, explaining that the 21 current RCMP positions in the detachment cover the majority of the 16,000 square kilometre area that makes up the Lac La Biche County specialized municipality. "It is a large area to cover."
Nutbrown also points out that recent statistics show a overall reduction in person and property crimes like break-and-enters and thefts in the area. Some of that could be attributed to the patrols as well as the working partnership between municipal peace officers and the RCMP, he said. But some of those statistics can also be attributed to fewer people making formal complaints about crime. Formal complaints and files make up the analytics that govern a significant part of where police resources are used. In the case of the Hylo area, despite examples of suspicious activity, thefts, break-ins and suspected illegal activities voiced at the recent meeting and on social media crime-watch pages, very few formal complaints have come into the local RCMP detachment.
"We have identified high crime areas in our district ... Hylo isn't one of those high areas based on reported crime statistics ... but we can't forget about Hylo or Plamondon or Rich Lake," Nutbrown said, relating the number of files to the possibility that some residents in smaller communities may not be comfortable making reports.
That fear factor was identified by several Hylo area residents at the recent meeting. One man even said he suspected a person he filed a police report against is responsible for burning down his home months later. Others said that drugs like meth and pint have made made criminals even more dangerous and unpredictable.
Police also blame drugs like meth for changes to how they handle crime and criminals. Drug addicts needing money to buy meth or pint are responsible for much of the property crime and thefts, as well as more violent crimes while they are under the influence of the drugs, says Nutbrown, and the law-abiding citizens get caught in the middle.
"I feel for the victims, I do," he said, "because we deal with them daily and some are absolutely fearful of what might happen. They were wronged, they were a victim, and now they are scared of what might happen if they give us information that allows us to do something to put the offender into the system."
It is that system where police and community members come to an agreement. Some at the meeting referred to the system as 'catch-and-release' for criminals, others blamed it for giving criminals more rights than victims. Fort McMurray-Cold Lake MP David Yurdiga said he felt the federal justice sytem was "in disarray."
Nutrbrown says the RCMP work within the confines of that system, and the need for witnesses and complainants to make formal statements is part of that process.
"Everything we deal with is systems and processes. And we are not in control of those systems and processes . We function within them," he said. "That's the way it's set up right now. I can't change that. I can't impact that. We can't change that system."
Political will could begin to make changes. Yurdiga, Lac La Biche County Mayor Omer Moghrabi and the area's provincial MLA Laila Goodridge all encouraged residents to continue to work together on the issue and to pressure all levels of government.
Moghrabi says he has met with the last three provincial Solicitor Generals — and each one needed to be informed about life in rural Alberta.
"We know a big part is the legal system. It's catch-and-release. I've met with three different Solicitor Generals and they don't quite get it in terms of what it means to live in rural Alberta," said Moghrabi, pledging to continue the campaign to have the system looked at.
Locally, Nutbrown says his officers work within the system to catch high-risk repeat offenders — and catch them again, and again.
"We don't wait for a habitual offender to start doing things before we go to look for them. We know they are doing more, and we don't want them to do more, so we are trying to reduce that," he said, explaining that each time the same offender goes before a judge, the sentence gets more and more severe, keeping them off the street longer.
At the federal level, Yurdiga says he will uses his available resources to seek changes and answer questions about the justice system. Locally, even though police say statistic are down, residents who say they see crime every day in their neighbourhood say more has to be done.
"It might be down, but I don't see it. The drug rate goes up and so does the crime," said one woman who attended the meeting, adding that her fears about crime have forced her to put her house on the market and move away.
Local police and political officials welcome more discussion on the issues on crime within the municipality. Further meetings are being planned for all areas of the region. Nutbrown says he is more than willing to attend and offer information that might help.
"The mayor has mentioned that we are going to have some more in the future. And we will be there. With these going in the future, honesty, let's get together and see what we can do together," Nutbrown said.