By Jeremy Appel
Alberta Newspaper Group
Redcliff RCMP Sgt. Sean Maxwell says the UCP’s plan to address rural crime is a generally positive development, but cautions that how it will work in practice remains to be seen.
“Any initiatives combating rural crime are welcome in general,” Maxwell said, emphasizing that RCMP detachments have yet to receive directions from K Division in Edmonton.
The government unveiled its plan Wednesday, which has four main components:
* Creating a Rural Alberta Provincial Integrated Defence Force to bring together and expand the authority of various provincial peace officers, such as Fish and Wildlife and Commercial Vehicle enforcement, as well as Alberta Sheriffs’ traffic arm;
* Strengthening property rights by changing the Occupiers’ Liability Act to prevent trespassers from being able to sue property owners if they’re hurt while trespassing – retroactive to January 2018 – while increasing the maximum penalties for trespassing;
* Cracking down on metal theft by requiring scrap metal dealers and recyclers to prove their products were acquired legitimately;
* Giving rural communities the ability to provide collective victim impact statements for sentencing purposes.
“We are sending a strong signal to rural Albertans who have been victimized for far too long,” Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer said in a news release. “We have listened to you. We have heard you. And we are standing with you.”
Maxwell says “it’s tough to say” how the RAPID Force will function until the scope of the peace officers’ expanded powers is known.
“They’re still our law enforcement partners in the province and have been for a long time,” he said. “We would already assist them if they called us to something. Right now it’s going to be guesswork in terms of what any additional powers would be.”
Other components, such as updates to the Occupiers’ Liability Act and victim impact statements, are court, not policing, matters, Maxwell added.
However, he says the scrap metal provision will make rural police officers’ lives easier.
“That definitely assists us in potentially identifying suspects and laying charges in relation to thefts of copper wire and that sort of thing,” said Maxwell.
South East Alberta Rural Crime Watch Association secretary treasurer Shannon Pakula shares Maxwell’s cautious optimism about the changes.
“We certainly applaud changes to the legislation to strengthen landowners’ rights,” she said.
Pakula says the RAPID Force is valuable for people who reside in desolate areas where there isn’t always a police officer nearby.
“If there’s other sources of support, that would certainly be welcome also in terms of a response to an emergency situation,” she said.
Community impact statements are an asset for communities affected by rural crime, says Pakula.
“Quite often, crime doesn’t affect just the victim. It affects a lot more people,” she said, adding that this is particularly pronounced in small communities where everybody knows each other.
NDP justice critic Kathleen Ganley served as the minister when her party unveiled its rural crime mitigation strategy in March 2018.
She says the major differences in the UCP and NDP government’s approaches is that her party invested in “actual boots on the ground” by hiring more prosecutors and police officers, in addition to establishing crime reduction units to “target prolific offenders.”
Another distinction, she says, is that the NDP’s plan sought to enhance co-ordination among peace officers and the RCMP, rather than endowing peace officers with enhanced powers.
“We were using them, essentially, as additional eyes and years, so that they could report things they thought were suspicious,” said Ganley.
She says she’s concerned giving peace officers additional law enforcement powers will overburden them, detracting from their ability to do their initial duties.
With regards to the UCP’s plan to bar trespassers from suing property owners, Ganley says, “The devil is really in the details.”
“That could do basically everything from re-enforcing the law as it already stands, which we’ve seen the UCP do in other bills, to basically suggesting a ‘shoot first, act questions later’ model,” she said.
“It really depends on how it’s implemented. It could be something we wouldn’t necessarily be against, but it does have the potential to be something of concern. I don’t think we want people shooting every time a kid is on their property.”