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Rural Alberta communities bemoan lack of increased police funding to deal with property crime spikes

While this year’s provincial budget dedicated funding to boost policing in big-city high crime areas, smaller communities dealing with their own crime spikes are left without more support to combat it.

Cold Lake is one of them. The city of 16,000 located 235 kilometres northeast of Edmonton has watched its property crime rates climb steadily since 2019, including a 26-per-cent increase between 2022 and 2023.

Cold Lake Mayor Craig Copeland says he’s disappointed rural police funding concerns were ignored in the latest budget given how much more crime his city has had to address. The provincial budget released at the end of February includes 100 new street-level officers in Edmonton and Calgary.

Cold Lake is raising its property taxes by almost five per cent in 2024, with one- to one-and-a-half per cent of the increase devoted to dealing with crime, Copeland told CTV News Edmonton.

That helps fund private security the city has hired to patrol the downtown core and surrounding areas.

“Unfortunately, in rural Alberta, there’s a lot of organized (crime) activities that are happening,” Copeland said.

“A lot of the business community, businesses in Cold Lake and outside of Cold Lake are getting hit continuously by crime. It’s really changed over the last couple of years. We’re not seeing an end to it. The city itself has been a victim of a lot of crime within their facilities.”

Given how the provincial funding model works, Cold Lake under its RCMP contract pays for 90 per cent of its police budget. Communities with RCMP service that have populations under 15,000 pay 75 per cent.

“What it works out to for the city, it’s just over $4 million a year, so if you’re bringing in, say, $21 million in property tax, the police budget you can see is a big component of your operating budget,” Copeland said, adding that his community and the general area brings in around $3 billion in oil royalties per year.

“Getting some of that money redirected to our area I think is well overdue,” he said.

“We need to nip this whole crime thing in the bud here.”

Mike Ellis, the Alberta minister of public safety and emergency services, told media on Monday that the provincial government is “always looking at trying to make sure that we have the resources in place.”

“We’re making sure both the RCMP, the sheriffs and our municipal police services have the resources in order to tackle this,” Ellis said at the Alberta legislature.

Paul McLauchlin, the president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, told CTV News Edmonton the current police funding model hurts more communities than it helps.

“We’re paying for something that is not changing the service at all,” McLauchlin said, adding he’d like to revisit the funding model.

“It’s caused very small communities across this province financial harm, with no change in service … My members want to pay, but they also want to see changes in policing. They want to be involved in policing, and I think that’s important.

“If you’re paying for something and you’re not seeing a change in service, I think that’s critically important. We see the will from the RCMP, we have a strong relationship with our RCMP detachments, so we need to move from that to actually deploying and getting things solved.”

While Cold Lake has seen an increase in crime, the RCMP say overall there’s been a 27-per-cent reduction in rural property crime since 2017.

Staff Sgt. Luke Halvorson, the Alberta RCMP’s non-commissioned officer in charge of community safety, says what drives crime in certain areas is complex and can involve several socio-economic factors, and while numbers are trending down, property crime “by and large, that makes the most volume.”

Grappling with property crime requires a holistic effort that starts with addressing root causes, McLauchlin says, something both Copeland and Halvorson echoed to CTV News Edmonton.

McLauchlin said his community of Ponoka County, for which he serves as reeve, often sees “repeat offenders” on the property crime front.

“I think that there’s a need here to really start dealing with the long game, which is tackling poverty, tackling people with no hope, and looking at ways to deal with long-term mental health and addiction problems,” he said.

Halvorson said a “collaborative effort” is the “true way” to reduce property crime rates.

“Drugs, mental health, housing issues all drive the crime rates, and if we can address some of those needs, we can work to reduce it,” he said.

“Some people are just going to commit crime, so we need to target our enforcement at them and ensure that they’re held accountable, and removed from the community if they’re not going to follow the rules and continue to victimize people.

“It’s not as simple as a single-pronged approach of go put everyone in jail. Different agencies of the government and community groups can all play a role to try to remove any barriers to help these people that are committing crime.”

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Nav Sangha, Miriam Valdes-Carletti and Chelan Skulski 

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