Exposing the roots of rural crime

Rising mental health and addiction issues compound the problem, and top police officials from Alberta offer solutions

Addictions and mental health issues are on the rise in rural and urban Alberta, say top police officials, making crime increasingly challenging to tackle.

The increase has strained services, they say, even though solutions to stem addictions and mental health problems are working.

“Meth is driving most of our violence and most of our crime in Alberta,” said Dale McFee, chief of the Edmonton Police Service, speaking at the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association convention on Sept. 25 in the city.

McFee said addictions and mental health often intertwine, but only chasing the drug to stop crime isn’t the solution.

Instead, he said, the right direction is getting to the root of the problem by addressing mental health concerns, helping people who are high-risk, and addressing individuals who are vulnerable to addictions.

“If we chase pathways versus the drugs, we will have something that is sustainable. We need to change that conversation,” McFee said.

While the rise in meth use and mental health challenges are evident across Alberta, statistics in Taber, Alta., highlight the new normal for police.

In the past two years, 44.8 percent of calls to Taber police involved drugs. During that time, 53 percent of calls saw people exhibit bizarre behaviour and 55.6 percent of calls reported auditory hallucinations.

Twelve percent of calls reported self harm and 8.7 percent indicated they were considering to die by suicide.

Taber chief of police Graham Abela, who shared the data, said the numbers show police are addressing more mental health and addictions issues, especially crystal meth use.

“We are seeing an absolute increase in crystal meth in rural Alberta,” Abela said. “For many, many years, Taber had been resilient to methamphetamine. We did not lay charges for it up until three years ago.”

Edmonton Chief of Police Dale McFee, left, Alberta RCMP Commanding Officer Curtis Zablocki and Taber Chief of Police Graham Abela speak during a panel discussion about crime in the province held as part of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association convention in Edmonton Sept. 25. | Jeremy Simes photo

He said police in rural detachments often have limited resources to help someone with addictions and mental health needs.

Hospitals and social agencies aren’t usually in small communities, he said, and mental health and drug court doesn’t exist.

“Who is left (to address this)? It’s us, the police,” he said. “This is what we have to do. We as an organization need to have a response to this crisis because there is no one else to call.”

But along with addressing mental health and addictions challenges, police officers have also been dealing with the rise in severe crime.

The top 100 prolific offenders in rural Alberta, for example, make up 4,065 calls for service and require nearly 15,000 hours of work, according to RCMP.

“They cause a significant amount of damage and utilize a significant amount of resources,” said Curtis Zablocki, Alberta RCMP commanding officer, sharing the data during his presentation.

Zablocki said mental health and addictions have played a significant role in criminal activity and acknowledged concerns from residents about ways to tackle the problem.

However, he said, the cycle of incarcerating repeat offenders over and over again needs to stop.

He pointed to the RCMP rural crime reduction units, which suppress, apprehend and offer ways to help rehabilitate repeat offenders, as a strategy that’s showing results.

Latest figures show the units have helped reduce crime by 9.8 percent from 2017-18.

A program, called the Integrated Habitual Offender Management Initiative, is also helping, he added. It leverages support from social and health agencies to address the root causes of crime.

Zablocki said studies of similar programs show one-third of participants don’t re-offend.

He shared a video of a young man named Timothy who went through the program to help overcome his addiction to meth, which ultimately stopped him from committing crimes.

“These officers would make a trip to bring us (our family) diapers and say hi,” Timothy said in the video. “That’s what I needed. I needed someone not to lie or arrest me, and not tell me I was a … criminal.”

The panel laid out other solutions to stem the problem.

In Taber, for example, the officers have set up a registry for people with disabilities, dementia or Alzheimer’s.

If someone on the registry requires service, police will be able to quickly look up their file and determine how to address the situation, Abela said.

For instance, police would be able to connect a wandering person with dementia to their families or caregiver in a timely manner. If a person with autism needed service, they would know not to bang the door or shine bright lights.

As well, tech solutions to address property crime can be easily adopted, McFee said.

While working as the deputy minister for corrections and policing in Saskatchewan, he helped spur an initiative that saw the development of a tracking device for machinery or valuables.

When the item moved, the owner could activate its GPS co-ordinates and send it to police. It meant face-to-face contact with criminals was avoided.

“We need the bright minds to help us think differently and we need to go after this relentlessly,” he said. “We can’t go after this traditionally.”

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