Rural organizations say the establishment of a new response team is a first step toward curbing crime in rural Saskatchewan.
Justice minister Gordon Wyant last week announced a Protection and Response Team comprised of 258 armed officers to improve response time and enhance visibility.
The team will include 120 police officers, 98 conservation officers from the environment ministry, and 40 commercial vehicle enforcement officers from highways.
The police contingent will be comprised of 60 positions currently allocated to the Combined Traffic Services Saskatchewan Initiative, 30 new positions and 30 re-purposed positions.
Conservation officers currently wear sidearms and will be able to arrest and detain suspects.
Vehicle enforcement officers will be armed, after appropriate training, and also gain arrest and detention powers.
Wyant said any one of these officers could be the first on scene when a call for help is placed.
He said the team should be fully staffed before the end of the fiscal year. SGI will contribute $4.9 million to the team and several other initiatives, and another $1 million will come from justice.
Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities president Ray Orb said RMs wanted greater visibility and shorter response times and this team appears to promise that.
But he said it is just one part of a larger effort that will be required by both responders and rural residents.
“I think we’re going to come up with the conclusion that the work is really just beginning,” he said after hearing the announcement. “We’ve got a lot of work to do on some of these files.”
The team and other recommendations came from a caucus committee on rural crime formed last fall, several months after the shooting death of Colton Boushie on a farm near Biggar led to heightened tension between First Nations and farmers.
Then, a controversial SARM resolution calling for rural residents’ ability to defend themselves and their property created more divide.
But Orb noted the motion did not mention First Nations people at all.
“The (Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations) felt that it was directed at them and that was not the case,” Orb said.
SARM, the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association and Sask-atchewan Cattlemen’s Association have a working group looking at ways to deter crime.
SCA president Ryan Beierbach said it would work with RCMP and government ministries to make sure “real improvements” happen.
“Cattle thefts, break and enters and the general response time to emergencies in the country are all issues cattle producers and ranchers face every day,” Beierbach said.
The best way to deal with cattle rustling is listed among the tasks for the justice ministry.
The other seven recommendations the government is acting on include:
- examining ways to allow two or more RMs to jointly administer alternative policing programs;
- writing the federal justice minister to request of a review of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, with a view to striking a balance between accountability and rehabilitation;
- installing automatic license plate readers in all PRT vehicles;
- working with First Nations to develop better on-reserve programming;
- working with RCMP to establish school liaison officers in rural areas where schools request them and to re-establish Rural Crime Watch;
- working with First Nations and the western provinces to build a First Nations-led aboriginal gang strategy;
- funding new positions to target illicit drugs that are driving property crime, such as crystal meth and fentanyl.
Orb said 22 of the province’s 296 RMs are currently members of Rural Crime Watch. That’s up from just two last year, and he said he liked the RCMP idea of a provincial association of rural crime watch members.
He said rural residents have to crime-proof their property as much as possible.
Wyant said that Innovation Sask-atchewan will be tasked with finding potential technological solutions.
“If we think we’re getting innovative and we’re using better communications the criminals are using the same modes,” Orb observed.
Wyant also said practices in rural areas could change, such as revitalizing rural crime watch.
“Farms were a lot smaller than they are today and neighbours could keep an eye on their neigh-bours and that’s not the case anymore,” he said. “Farms are much larger and neighbours don’t have an opportunity to do that, so what kind of solutions could be brought to that.”
Curtis Zablocki, assistant commissioner of the RCMP in Sask-atchewan, said he expected there would be some growing pains as the integrated unit forms but that in the long run it could better address challenges.
Kevin Murphy, assistant deputy minister of environment responsible for resource management and compliance, said the team is a way to optimize all the training that conservation officers have.
“They’re trained to the exact same standard as our RCMP officers for use of force. They’re inter-operable,” he said. “They already assist the RCMP with things like manhunts, chases, evidence securement, things like that in many of the rural areas.”
They will however need training in things like how to deal with fentanyl, for example.
Commercial vehicle enforcement officers are trained in force and carry batons but will undertake firearms training.
The full committee report, along with the recommendations and government response, can be found at: bit.ly/2xqx2PD.