More than 350 Foothills residents packed the Foothills Centennial Centre in Okotoks to talk about the rise in rural crime and what homeowners can do to protect their properties.
The MD of Foothills hosted a rural crime meeting on April 10 bringing together residents to hear from a panel consisting of RCMP members from Okotoks, Turner Valley, and High River detachments and the southern Alberta district, presidents of three Foothills-based rural crime watch associations, as well as representatives from MP John Barlow’s office and the office of the Alberta minister of justice and attorney general.
Residents came out to hear information about rural crime including statistics, protecting property, using excessive force, how rural crime watches work, and what the government intends to do to respond to rural crime.
Marlin Degrand, executive director of the law enforcement oversight branch of the justice minister’s office, said he was encouraged to see such a high turn-out at the meeting and active crime watch associations, because it takes the support of the entire community to help prevent rural crime.
“This is not a policing problem, this is not a courts problem, this is an Alberta community problem,” he said. “None of this happens in a vacuum. All of this happens in our backyards, and we need to encourage and foster the local community approach to dealing with this.”
Degrand said the provincial government has committed $8 million to bring 39 police officers and 40 civilian staff to Alberta on four rural crime reduction teams. In addition, the Province intends to replace 13 retiring prosecutors, and bring in an additional 10 prosecutors who will deal specifically with rural crime issues. There is also $2.2 million to pay more prosecutors, he said.
Foothills resident Vicki Morrison said she hopes having more prosecutors in the province will help, because the system seems to be broken.
“They arrest these guys and women, and two days later they’re out again,” she said. “They can only do what they can do then it goes to the next level, and if the next level is failing then they’re back on the streets committing crimes again.”
Morrison took the opportunity to speak to crime watch members at the meeting and signed up for the High Country Rural Crime Watch, which covers the west region of the Foothills, including the Black Diamond, Turner Valley, Longview and Priddis areas.
With her yellow crime watch sign in-hand, Morrison said it’s important for the rural community to show solidarity and get more eyes and ears open in their neighbourhoods.
“It should be a deterrent for people to know that they know their neighbours, for somebody trespassing to know the neighbours talk,” she said. “If everyone in the area has these signs, you can assume they’re talking to each other.”
Morrison said there were conflicting messages at the meeting, with police and rural crime watch members telling residents to protect their property by locking gates, but also encouraging more communication.
You can’t have open lines of communication if the driveways are all barricaded, she said.
“It’s not consistent with the message they’re saying here, about communicating and knowing what each other are doing, and being nosy, and knowing who should be there or who shouldn’t be there,” said Morrison. “So I’m going to lock my gate so you can’t even come over for a cup of coffee? How is anyone who doesn’t know the person’s phone number supposed to get past the gate to even say hello?”
She said a friend moved into their area fairly recently, and it took her two years to meet some of the neighbours because of locked gates. That’s not the way it should be, said Morrison.
Keeping properties locked down not only discourages communication, it also promotes fear among residents, she said.
“It’s not about making the innocent people feel afraid, it should be about making the guilty people afraid and so far the message hasn’t been that,” said Morrison. “We’re being told to lock our gates, get alarms. So far it’s been making the innocent people feel afraid.”
Coun. Suzanne Oel, president of the High Country Rural Crime Watch, said installing gates, motion-sensor lighting, cameras and alarms are about being proactive and deterring criminal activity. They should make residences less of a target to criminals, she said.
In addition, she encouraged meeting attendees to be aware of their neighbours and report any suspicious activity to the police and also to the rural crime watch groups.
“We can warn each other about what’s going on and we can help each other prepare for an emergency or scary situation,” said Oel.
She said High Country Rural Crime Watch is arranging meetings to deal specifically with self-defence. In the meantime, it’s important for people to be in touch with their neighbours, to be vigilant and informed, said Oel.
Residents can also lobby provincial and federal governments to see changes in the justice system, she said.
Don Larson, president of the Foothills Rural Crime Watch, said everyone needs to get nosy and get to know exactly which vehicles belong on the roads in order to help identify suspicious behaviour.
“It’s very simple. We have to start looking out for each and every one of us,” said Larson. “Through education and awareness, and reporting everything we see, those little trivial matters, if we report enough times we’ve seen a certain vehicle in the area, it draws attention to it.”