According to Statistics Canada, the volume and severity of crime is on the rise in Canada for the first time in 12 years, jumping five per cent in 2015 from 2014.
And rural communities are not untouched by this increased crime rate. With theft and vandalism rising, so has the rhetoric of farmers and rural residents arming themselves to protect their property.
In Saskatchewan, a Facebook group called Farmers with Firearms posts, "If the RCMP is delayed, we will take matters into our own hands."
It's this kind of talk that has prompted RCMP detachment commander S/Sgt. Ken Morrison to ask an important question at town hall meetings in his community of Blackfalds, Alta. — is property worth your life?
"If [residents are] engaging, someone is going to get hurt," says Morrison.
Blackfalds detachment is nestled between Alberta's two largest cities, Calgary and Edmonton, and located just outside the City of Red Deer.
Morrison, or one of his police officers, attends every single town hall-type meeting in his jurisdiction to engage with the communities, answer police-related questions and curb talk of vigilante justice before it happens.
Property crimes such as break and enters, auto theft and vandalism, are the number one concern of residents in the area and a priority for the detachment.
"If you look at theft of vehicles and break and enters — especially in the rural areas — they're being plagued because they're ripe for the picking," says Morrison.
Eyes and ears
Cpl. Mel Zurevinsky, who works with the RCMP's Crime Prevention/Crime Reduction section in Regina, Sask., is aware of the Facebook group and rising concerns about rural crime in Saskatchewan.
"Rural municipalities and detachments have been bombarded with a lot of calls of rural theft and rural activity where there is vigilantism," says Zurevinsky. "We're not condoning anyone advocating taking matters into their own hands. We want people through Rural Crime Watch to communicate what they see and pass that information on to police."
Rural Crime Watch is a community-led, police-supported crime prevention and crime reduction partnership. It was thriving in Saskatchewan in the early 2000s but engagement in the program dwindled over the years.
Zurevinsky spoke at the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM) convention in the spring about revitalizing the program.
"We can't be there at all times so the residents are our eyes and ears," says Zurevinsky.
He's updated materials to distribute to rural municipalities, given presentations at town meetings and spoken with several media outlets to spread the message that working with the police is the best solution.
Right now there are approximately 22 communities in Saskatchewan in the process of starting or revitalizing their programs.
Zurevinsky praises the Rural Municipality of Edenwold, Sask., for the success of its Rural Crime Watch program. He often uses Edenwold as an example.
The group uses technology to its advantage — about 60 per cent of its 90 members use WhatsApp, a group chat app, to share information instantly in real time on any suspicious activity in their community. As an added benefit, a few local RCMP officers are also part of the group chat.
Tim Brodt, a councillor with the Rural Municipality of Edenwold and president of its Rural Crime Watch, says the goal of the group is to stop criminals from stopping in their area.
"One of the things we focus on with Rural Crime Watch is to get to know your neighbours so you know which vehicles are driving around," says Brodt. "If you see one that looks suspicious, write down the licence plate and date of when it happened and share it on the app. This way we have a bit of recourse if something happens."
Zurevinsky says the idea of Rural Crime Watch is simple. In addition to attending a few meetings a year, members are asked to be vigilant as they go about their everyday routine. If they see anything suspicious, they keep a record of it, share it and report it to the police if warranted.
"Our crime analysts can take that information and use it to identify these people and where the crime is occurring," says Zurevinksy.
A prime example is the Jospeh Palmer case that was recently tried in Saskatchewan. In this case, Kim Audette, a crime analyst with the RCMP, and Cst. Holly LeFrancois, an investigator on the case, worked together resulting in a conviction on 114 charges of rural break and enters.
Key piece of evidence
In Manitoba, Cpl. Mike Boychuk, of the RCMP's Brandon detachment, says crime analysis is an important tool in rural communities.
"Most people are habitual — even criminals," says Boychuk. "If they do break and enters and enjoy using a tire iron, they'll use that tire iron at several break and enters. If we find those patterns and find that key piece of evidence to identify the suspect, then we know we're on the right track and we can solve a lot of crimes."
In most cases, crimes in rural areas are a challenge to solve.
"There are vast areas and not many witnesses," says Boychuk. "Just last week we had four break and enters in the town of Souris. We look for evidence, we try and find witnesses and we try and solve them, but it's difficult."
He says they're always looking for tire impressions, footprint impressions and fingerprints, but what's particularly helpful is video surveillance.
"We really encourage people to purchase surveillance," says Boychuk. "People get alarms for their property, which is good to try and deter unwanted people on their property, but at the same time, it's difficult to get a suspect when the travel time out to a spot could be 15 minutes to in excess of an hour."
Sometimes, all it takes is finding one piece of the puzzle, like capturing a suspect on camera, that leads to another that leads to solving a case. Just this past winter, Boychuk says police were able to crack a rural crime ring.
Five men were charged with stealing vehicles, guns and tools from properties in southwest Manitoba.
It started with a break and enter on a rural property. The victim reported that a few of his credit cards were stolen, one of which was used a short time later at a convenience store in Brandon.
The RCMP acted quickly and obtained video surveillance from the store and was able to identify suspects based on those images. Shortly after that, the forensic identification unit extracted a fingerprint off a stolen vehicle that matched a known criminal.
"Those two real key events pointed us in the right direction," says Boychuk. "Once we were able to get suspects into custody, we used some key interviewing techniques and confessions were obtained. With the arrest of four men, we solved over 100 crimes."
In central Alberta, the Priority Crimes Task Force has operated since October 2014 to address the rise in rural crime.
The task force is a joint effort among the RCMP in Blackfalds, Red Deer City, Sylvan Lake, Innisfail, Bashaw, Ponoka, Rimbey and Rocky Mountain House, and the Lacombe Police Service. Each contributes police officers to the plainclothes unit.
The unit actively uses intelligence that's been gathered by front-line police officers in their investigations to link crimes. "They've been successful in taking down several organizations that have been actively involved in property crime," says Morrison.
Morrison was looking for yet another way to tackle rural crime in his district without adding more work to his already-stretched general-duty police officers.
The success of the Priority Crimes Task Force inspired Morrison to approach Red Deer and Lacombe Counties, in which Blackfalds operates, to share the cost of funding two enhanced positions to form a General Investigation Section (GIS). The GIS will focus on property and other serious crimes in those counties.
Morrison asked specifically for two plainclothes officers. He didn't want extra uniformed officers as they would just get lost in the day-to-day of the detachment and not make the difference he was looking for.
"I think that's one of the things that really sold it because we weren't asking for just another police officer, we were asking for something specific — something to target what the public and police both see as one of the major concerns right now," says Morrison.
The new GIS will have several strategic benefits. It will lighten the workload of general-duty members allowing them to be proactive instead of reactive, and the dedicated unit will be able see investigations from beginning to end and connect crimes from one investigation to the next.
The RCMP and counties are currently working out the details of the contract. The unit will work out of Blackfalds detachment but will service the entirety of both Red Deer and Lacombe counties, which are also served by other detachments and municipal police services.
Morrison hopes the new unit will be operational by the summer of 2018.
With this new agreement, he's pleased to see that the rural areas, both the counties and the residents, are stepping up and becoming more engaged in tackling the issue.
"I think for a long time we saw policing was simply put in the hand of the police officers," says Morrison. "Now through active engagement with communities and incorporating everybody together, there's a better understanding that policing is a community effort."