Addressing a recent spike in property crimes is going to take more than just extra policing. That’s the thought from Grande Prairie RCMP Superintendent Don McKenna, who says it can partly be attributed to a rise in homelessness, the opioid crisis, and the time of year.
“We live in the land of the midnight sun so it’s very bright until very, very late at night, and then, of course, we also have kids that aren’t in school. A lot of crime is not a massive group of people that are committing specific crimes; it’s usually a very small group.”
Statistics show the increase in crime started in May. Reports of theft from vehicles went up from 191 from January to April to 304 from May to July. In that same time frame, reports of mischief increased from 579 to 711, theft from 443 to 604, and break and enter from 171 to 264. Assault, impaired driving, harassment, and drug offences were down.
Mounties have been focusing on targeting chronic offenders and problem neighbourhoods using a data tool called CompStat that identifies emerging trends in local crime. However, McKenna says law enforcement is only one part of the solution.
“Working with our partner agencies is, in my opinion, the best way to address crime. We only deal with a small portion… the criminal activity, but what happened to all the stuff before that.”
While it’s important to arrest and prosecute criminals, McKenna believes the key to reducing crime rates is getting people away from criminal lifestyles in the first place. That can include connecting them with services, like employment connections, drug rehabilitation, and housing.
“Sometimes people need a kick in the pants, and sometimes they need a helping hand,” McKenna says. “We have to give people alternatives.”
The most recent homeless point-in-time count revealed 228 homeless people living in Grande Prairie as of April 2018, up 80 per cent over the 127 counted in October 2016. McKenna says he’s also heard about rental rates going up and the vacancy rate near zero per cent, which is pushing out some people who were living on the edge financially.
The opioid crisis, the local court backlog, and Grande Prairie’s growing population are also adding to the problem. McKenna says there’s a clear need for supportive housing in the community, which is what is planned for the Parkside Inn.
“We need to help these people. At the same time, we need to hold them accountable for the bad stuff that they do. If you’re a drug addict, it’s not an excuse for committing a crime.”
If approved, the City would lease the motel on 100 Avenue and it would be run by the Canadian Mental Health Association as 24-hour supportive housing with a fence and security.
A group of concerned citizens approached Grande Prairie city council at their meeting Monday night. Residents took up many of the chairs in council chambers, and two addressed council to share their experiences with the rise in crime.
At the end of the meeting, councillors asked for an update on recent crime trends at an upcoming committee. Mayor Bill Given says it’s clear residents have concerns, and he’s glad they’re reaching out through the proper channels.
“One of the things that may be helpful to people is to make an effort to understand what initiatives are already underway, what the City of Grande Prairie does to invest in community safety, what departments make themselves available.”
Given notes, the city spends roughly $20 million a year on RCMP staffing on top of its bylaw officers. He encourages people looking to get involved to join their neighbourhood association or start one if one doesn’t already exist.
“The Mountview Neighbourhood Association is actually the direct result of concerns in the neighbourhood. They originally formed around a concern around drug houses in their neighbourhood, and through working with the City of Grande Prairie’s Crime Prevention department, the RCMP, and bylaw, we were actually able to get those drug houses shut down.”
Superintendent McKenna echoes that suggestion. He also urges people to take personal security measures like locking their houses and vehicles, not leaving valuables in sight and taking down the serial numbers of their bikes.
“We need reasonable grounds to arrest people and that takes time,” he pleads. “The public expectation is very high; it’s very high for us to bring evidence.”
McKenna also stresses the importance of calling police about any suspected crimes, and not confronting a potential thief or criminal personally.