LAKELAND - The recent story of a man arrested and then released from custody in a Lakeland community only to commit another crime just hours later in the same area is something area police and politicians hear all too often.
On Sept.14, a Kehewin Cree Nation man was released from custody through a judicial interim release with a promise to appear in court at a later date in connection to an early morning break-in at a residence in the town of Smoky Lake. Later that same night, police say the same man instead appeared on a rural Smoky Lake County homeowner's patio where he began yelling and smashing windows trying to get inside.
The homeowner said the same man had tried to break into a business on the same property and had allegedly started a fire behind the building.
The suspect ran when police arrived at the scene. Smoky Lake RCMP, with the assistance of the Two Hills, Boyle, and Redwater RCMP and the northeastern Alberta police dog services arrested a suspect after a short search of the area. Dennis Watchmaker, 46, has been charged with several offences, including break and enter, arson, trespass at night, mischief and theft. Watchmaker was also reportedly wanted on outstanding warrants at the time of his arrests.
According to a Sept. 21 news release from RCMP, he is now behind bars awaiting a court date at the end of the month.
"Catch and release," is how Lac La Biche County Mayor Omer Moghrabi describes it.
During a recent meeting with the community's RCMP office boss to update local policing operations, the mayor said more has to be done through provincial avenues to help police keep suspects in custody.
"So often, they are out that day or the next day," he said, explaining that he has spent much of his past seven years in the mayor's chair trying to get help for the issue from the provincial Solicitor General's office and the Alberta Justice department.
"For seven years I've been having the same conversation with the different Solicitor Generals. I guess we'll continue doing that. I don't know what else to do. I just know that we can't just keep letting them out," he said.
For their part, local police say their hands are tied as the judicial release program is no longer linked to the detachments or the police member involved in the arrests. Until recent years, local RCMP members and local justices of the peace would speak to release arrangements or custodial holds for suspects arrested locally, now the matters are handled over the phone or online with legal professionals outside of the community.
"Now it's not localized," says Lac La Biche RCMP detachment Staff Sgt. Neil Bailey.
Defending the community work done by the police force to catch criminals, Bailey agreed with the mayor that the system can be frustrating — but at the same time recognized that police are tasked to work within it.
"I"m not running down the system — but we do see a lot released ... it's not only frustrating for everyone in the community, it can be for us too," he said, adding that a return to localized justices of the peace could be something to explore further.
Moghrabi said municipalities across the province are facing similar issues and municipal leaders will continue to pressure provincial officials to find a solution.
From the recent Smoky Lake incident, Watchmaker will make his first court appearance in relation to the two incidents on Thursday, Sept. 30 in the Fort Saskatchewan Provincial Court.
Despite the issues with the system, and frustrations shown by community members, the Smoky Lake RCMP have added information to their news releases about local crime, encouraging the public to continue reporting any criminal or suspicious activity.
"Reports tell us where to look, who to look for, and where to patrol in the future. If you see a crime in progress, dial 911. If you wish to remain anonymous, contact Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 (TIPS)," notes RCMP Cpl. Tammy Keibel.