Rural policing goes outside the box

Options are being explored as crime rises in rural Saskatchewan and resources for rural policing are stretched thinner.

“Our capacity to respond can only take us so far,” RCMP assistant commissioner Curtis Zablocki, commanding officer of F division, said during the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities’ midterm convention last month.

“We need to come up with other ways of policing these large and sometimes sparsely populated areas.”

Zablocki said Saskatchewan was historically built on community values of looking out for each other, sharing civic responsibility and living up to community commitments.

“As it turns out, community policing happens to be both our past and our future in Saskatchewan. Working together with all of us playing a role is more important than ever,” he said.

“Communities get out of it what they put into it.… Because policing isn’t just our job, frankly, it’s a shared responsibility and we all have a role to play.”

Zablocki said the current budget under the provincial police service agreement translates into 924 policing positions for rural Saskatchewan.

He said police work is specialized and cannot accommodate part-time or substitution type duties such as is found in other professions. However, the RCMP are exploring ways to increase the numbers of front-line people.

A reservists program has recently been implemented, which is hiring former or retired RCMP officers on a part-time basis to fill in as needed.

“This program is slowly increasing in numbers, and in Saskatchewan we currently have 24 fully qualified reservists that serve in a variety of policing functions across the province,” he said.

A small designated relief unit has also been set up, which is used when detachments run short of manpower or when the “perfect storm” develops.

Zablocki said the RCMP is open to exploring partnerships and developing initiatives with local communities.

“Communication, collaboration, co-operation — that’s where we’ll find our answers,” he said.

He said crime reduction and prevention must be based in community engagement and mobilization.

“While we might long for the days where we didn’t have to remove our keys from our vehicles, record the serial numbers of our ATVs and our equipment, or lock up our fuel tanks, those days are unfortunately gone,” he said.

However, he said what isn’t gone is neighbours looking out for neighbours and keeping an eye out for each other’s property.

Community-led programs include rural crime watch, agro-watch and citizens on patrol.

“While we do not maintain or lead these programs, we encourage and certainly support them,” Zablocki said.

Each program is done within specific guidelines outlined by local police detachments within the parameters of the law.

For example, he said the rural crime watch community was mobilized in Briercrest, Sask., in spring 2014 to help police catch truck thieves.

He said the village activated its emergency phone tree; residents jumped into their trucks and onto their ATV’s and a pilot even took to the air to conduct a grid search.

When the three teenaged suspects from Regina were spotted walking through a wet, muddy field that could not be accessed with four-wheel drive, a local farmer transported police officers in the bucket of his tractor.

“That’s how they were actually apprehended. It puts a new meaning to, ‘throwing them in the bucket,’ ” Zablocki said.

Other community policing options that extend beyond traditional RCMP services include the recruitment of community safety officers.

SARM was the driving force in getting this program off the ground.

“CSOs focus their efforts on low risk public safety demands, things like traffic, liquor enforcement, bylaw enforcement. They can also have a key role in education and awareness and prevention,” he said.

“Having the ability to respond in that kind of work frees up the RCMP to work on higher impact enforcement and public safety issues.”

He said any community or RM can apply to bring a CSO on board or cost share with a neighbouring municipality.

One benefit of the program is that a percentage of fine revenues are returned to the local government.

“The RCMP fine revenue does not go to rural municipalities. It goes to some of the larger centres, but it doesn’t go to the smaller municipalities. That’s something we’ve been lobbying for,” said SARM president Ray Orb.

He said more collaboration and communication is needed between the RCMP and members of SARM to boost rural policing as property related crime continues to increase.

“There’s a little more urgency from our side. We need to improve things out in the rural areas fairly quickly, if we can,” he said.

SARM is exploring the idea of RMs hiring their own RCMP officers, as do urban municipalities.

“That option is open for rural municipalities. We just have to have the wherewithal to be able to afford that because they’re already paying a fee towards policing from the RCMP,” said Orb.

“There are options already, but I think we need to probably make them more streamlined, more efficient.”

He said the rural crime watch in Saskatchewan used to be very active, but it fell by the wayside.

“A lot of that goes back to the communities themselves. Some of the options are there. We just have to refine and remind people that they are there to be used,” he said.

“We certainly don’t want rural people doing things on their own, trying to enforce the law themselves.”

Zablocki said more police vehicles are currently patrolling the countryside because of the recent spike in crime in some parts of the province.

“Hoping to be in the right place at the right time to catch the bad guys is not the most productive or strategic use of additional resources,” he said.

“The truth is that police visibility most effects the perceptions that we are preventing crime, not necessarily the reality. What visibility can do is lessen the fear of crime.”

However, Orb would like to see more police presence in RMs.

“Our biggest complaint is, and we never blame the RCMP, but we don’t see as much of their presence as we would like,” he said.

“We still believe that the presence of RCMP still is a deterrent to crime. Because they are spread thin, obviously they don’t have the power to that and so we’d like to see that changed.”

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