On the ground: Alta. RCMP tackle rural crime

The police force reports that the rural crime rate is down, but officers on the ground say more work needs to be done 

ST. PAUL, Alta. — While driving along lonely prairie roads in eastern Alberta, RCMP officers Rob Eberly and Tony Knowles are on their way to check on problem properties and individuals in the community.

Their mission isn’t necessarily one of doing a high-profile sting operation, but one of gathering information and reaching out to residents about rural crime in the area.

“It’s crucial. It’s part of the investigation process,” said Eberly, a member of the eastern rural crime reduction unit, while driving down a gravel road in the St. Paul area in late October.

“You can run around and arrest bad guys until the cows come home, but to have any sort of impact you have to do this information gathering. You have to talk to people, so you can connect the dots and put the pieces of the puzzle together.

“If you don’t do that, you could miss out on a lot. It’s the difference between a minor and major stolen property investigation.”

Their work is part of the unit’s goal to investigate, suppress, apprehend and offer ways to help rehabilitate the five percent of individuals causing 95 percent of the crime in rural communities.

If they can achieve that, they will likely make larger dents than they already have into Alberta’s rural crime problem, explained Sgt. James Morton, who heads the eastern team.

Gathering information and reaching out to residents about rural crime are important parts of the job for RCMP officers Rob Eberly, left, and Tony Knowles. | Jeremy Simes photo

“If anyone thinks we can police our way out of this, they are horribly mistaken. We will not arrest, charge and incarcerate our way out of this,” he said during an interview in his office.

“Everybody is faced with a fork in the road in which they either have to make a healthy or unhealthy decision, and I believe everyone is salvageable. We on this team believe someone is salvageable.

“Everyone has redeeming qualities, but how do we get them? We all know the answers.”

The Prairies, particularly Alberta, have seen a surge in rural crime since the oil and gas economy tanked in 2015. Officers indicate drug use and trafficking have also increased since then.

The result has been more homes being broken into and more personal property being stolen, causing tensions to heighten in rural communities.

For instance, the high-profile case of Colten Boushie being shot on Gerald Stanley’s farm in 2016 in Biggar, Sask., sparked national attention.

Soon after Stanley was acquitted last year of second-degree murder in that case, charges against Alberta farmer Edouard Maurice were dropped following a confrontation with two people on his property.

Again, public outcry was intense.

“When a house gets broken into, it’s a huge invasion of privacy, as far as I’m concerned,” Eberly said.

“We have to investigate and try to catch these guys, and also find ways to get them to not re-offend again. It’s frustrating when we see chronic offenders get released time and time again.”

In response to the growing issue, the provincial government is spending $10 million on a rural crime strategy for the RCMP crime reduction units.

Results so far are promising.

RCMP Cst. Rob Eberly and Cst. Tony Knowles devise a plan before checking problematic individuals and properties in their area. | Jeremy Simes photo

The RCMP has reported laying more charges, an indication they are nabbing the chronic offenders, and that property crime overall in rural detachments is down by 11 percent.

However, Morton knows there is more work to do. He said crime will always go up and down, but his job is to settle out those spikes and dips, eventually seeing the rate move consistently downward.

“We can try to figure out all the societal issues that brought us here, or we can just accept where we are and figure out how we get out of here,” he said.

As well, residents and farmers have a role to play in helping reduce crime.

Speaking at RCMP Alberta headquarters in Edmonton, RCMP Supt. Peter Tewfik said nearly half of all stolen vehicles had keys left in them.

“From a public engagement standpoint, we have to get the message out that people need to take their keys and valuables out of their vehicles because it has a big impact on auto theft,” said Tewfik, who oversees the provincial project.

Morton added: “The times of leaving doors unlocked and keys in vehicles have passed. I wish it weren’t so. I desperately wish we still lived in those times where people respected each other, but we don’t.”

Back on the road with Eberly and Knowles, the officers weren’t able to locate one problematic individual, but they managed to arrest someone else who faces many charges.

As well, they spoke with neighbours and got crucial information on the problem properties they visited.

“We are trying to rebuild the trust and show these hard-working people in the community that we are doing our best and putting our best foot forward with these investigations,” Eberly said.

While their day might have been a bit low-key, their team continues to solve countless high-profile cases.

Some of those cases include arresting a group of bandits over break-and-enter sprees in the Elk Point and Bonnyville areas, busting a chop shop in Viking, making a big drug bust in Fox Creek and seizing a large number of weapons in Parkland County.

“I think these crime reduction units are a good step in the right direction. It’s only part of the solution, but it’s definitely a start,” Eberly said.

For Morton, he believes being a good neighbour could also go a long way in helping reduce crime.

“I have said this to many people and believe it in my heart. You don’t have to worry about what’s going on everywhere to make things better. All you have to do is commit to being a good neighbour,” he said.

“If you have a bad neighbour, say he always has a new quad every other day on his property, go speak to your other good neighbour and talk to the bad neighbour together. If he’s got something to hide, report it to the police.”

Property crime in Alberta:

  • From January to July 2017 vs. January to July 2018, rural detachments saw a reduction in property crime by 11 percent, municipal detachments saw a reduction of property crime of eight percent and there was a reduction of nine percent province-wide.
  • During the same time, there were 366 fewer break and enters, 648 fewer thefts of motor vehicles, 2,358 fewer thefts of property over and under $5,000 and 644 fewer cases of people in possession of stolen goods.
  • During July 2017 to July 2018, property crime in rural detachments fell by 25 percent, municipal detachments saw a decrease of 11 percent and there was a dip of 17 percent province-wide.
  • RCMP officers made 533 arrests and laid 1,628 charges. It means that about one arrest resulted in three to five charges.

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