Many cool to idea, more training of existing police force needed
South Peace News
As protests across Canada and the US continue to call into question current policing models and whether they can be improved to reduce what critics say is a pattern of systemic racism, Alberta is exploring the idea of using civilian volunteers to help police combat rural crime.
Central Peace-Notley MLA Todd Loewen introduced a private member’s motion on June 22 to explore options for creating a volunteer corps of some kind “to assist law enforcement in Alberta.”
Loewen says rural crime continues to be a top concern he hears from his constituents in the Peace region, and the new groups he’s proposing would build on existing rural crime watch organizations.
“Rural crime associations are a perfect example of the Alberta spirit: neighbour helping neighbour, the community looking out for each other, and giving police information that helps with the swift capture of criminals,” he says.
“These rural crime watches are active throughout Alberta, but an overarching direction and support from the province and local law enforcement would increase their collective effectiveness across the board.”
Loewen says the volunteers would be organized, screened, and trained by local law enforcement.
“It’ll build on the associations already in place like the Rural Crime Watch and Citizens on Patrol associations that already partner with police. They’ll work with crime-fighting apps that are becoming more and more common. They’ll harness the people of Alberta’s desire to help stop crime and will help organizational structure and facilitate communication between volunteer groups and the police.
“It can also possibly support search and rescue organizations, provide crowd safety, traffic control, and other assistance in emergencies, low-risk activities that help police and crime prevention and citizen safety, and patrolling communities and contact police if there are any issues,” he adds.
Northern Sunrise County councillor and chair of the county’s rural crime watch group, Corinna Williams, says she hasn’t had a chance to discuss the idea with the Northern Sunrise County members yet due to limitations on meetings because of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, she has recently met with the Canadian Municipal Network for Crime Prevention and discussed the idea.
“There are concerns that this could go wrong and go down the path of vigilantism, how would this be monitored, how safe would it be for the volunteers. More questions/concerns at this point than I would say support,” Williams says.
Loewen says his intent is not to create a group to take over from the police in any way.
“It would not be an avenue for vigilante justice, for there lies other problems with that,” Loewen says.
“We want volunteers to assist our province’s law enforcement in getting the bad guys behind bars and the people of Alberta kept safe.”
Williams says the Northern Sunrise County crime watch members are already taking more active roles to report suspicious activities and look out for stolen vehicles or those on a curfew.
“Along with the e-mails sent out the newer technologies such as Voyent Alert and Lightcatch are all added means to communicate break-ins, stolen vehicles, etc. which I feel does help the RCMP by the users reporting the activity to the RCMP,” she says.
Sgt. Dave Browne says not only has the RCMP worked with the Northern Sunrise group for 12 years, the local police are also engaged with other citizen groups at the local level.
“What’s perhaps not as commonly known is that we also partner with a Citizens on Patrol group out of Berwyn,” Browne says.
Citizens on Patrol groups have community members actively patrol their communities and report any suspicious activity to police. Rural Crime Watches don’t engage in active patrols but work more as the eyes and ears of local police.
Browne says a close working relationship with both groups is an integral component to ensuring their success and keeping volunteers safe.
Opposition NDP MLA Rod Loyola argued against the motion in the Legislature, raising concerns about safety and about how police deal with people of colour and minorities, issues brought forward by ongoing protests in both rural and urban communities.
“My problem with [this motion] is that it is not concerned with consultation of racialized people at all,” he said.
Jacob Weldon-Hry- niuk, who organized the Black Lives Matter solidarity protest in Peace River, is not sold on the idea.
“I think that using volunteers is shifting the narrative,” he says.
“The main issue with police is that they do not have long enough training. And even if we do get volunteers to help police, what training will they have? If it’s the same training they already get then that won’t help anyone. If anything they’ll have a less if an incentive to do their job properly because there is no paycheque on the line.”
If the volunteer program does go forward, he hopes it focuses on education.
“In my opinion, the best way to use a public volunteer program is have them be community outreach officers in schools. Teaching kids how to call 911 and what they need to say to the dispatcher. What to do if someone breaks into there house. Stuff like that,” Weldon-Hryniuk says.
“The last thing we need is more people with guns on the streets. The first thing we need is a complete reform of how police officers are trained.”
Wendy Goulet regularly organizes Sisters in Spirit walks in Peace River to memorialize missing and murdered indigenous women. She says the idea is a waste of money.
“My opinion, we don’t need it, those people can volunteer with the RCMP auxiliary and local crime watch groups,” she says.
The RCMP auxiliary is a national program of trained but unarmed volunteers who work with law enforcement.
The UCP government has already put forward a number of initiatives to help address rural crime, such as giving more law-enforcement responsibilities to Fish and Wildlife officers and raising fines for trespassing on rural properties.
Rural municipalities are now being expected to pay for policing as well, although no guarantee of increased service levels or new detachments has been given along with the shift in funding.
While Loewen’s private motion is not a government bill, after debate it did gain the support of a majority of government members so may become the basis for future legislation.
Meanwhile, Browne encourages anyone who wants to help RCMP address rural crime to join a local crime watch, attend a crime watch meeting, and volunteer for or help found a COP group in their own community if one doesn’t already exist.