After what seemed like a rash of break-ins over the last couple of months, downtown Ponoka business owners are feeling frustrating, and with the added stresses of COVID-19 restrictions, some are on the verge of giving up.
X’s and O’s clothing store, located at 5016 50 St., was broken into twice over the summer — once in May and once in July — and now the future of the boutique is uncertain.
“I’m tired,” said owner Linda Gunsch.
“It’s stressful enough and with everything else … it’s just too much.”
The first time her store was broken into, the thieves entered through a broken window and made off with quite a bit of merchandise. The second time, someone heard the would-be thieves at around 4 a.m. and came around the corner which scared them off, she says.
Although she says she hasn’t made a decision yet about closing her doors, she’s thinking about it.
She opened just over a year ago, in the midst of the pandemic.
“It is frustrating. With COVID, everything is so slow and it’s a struggle to start with and it’s really disheartening.”
Add in a couple of break-ins and “it’s devastating,” she said.
“You’re always thinking, ‘Is it going to happen again?’
“It seems every business is getting hit,” she said, adding it feels like there are no consequences for the perpetrators.
Gypsy Fringe Boutique, located at 5012, 48 Ave., was broken into at the end of August. The culprits broke in through the front door, which was double-paned glass.
The theft was discovered Monday, Aug. 30, and it could have happened anytime over the weekend.
Owner Terry Demoline says it’s frustrating, because even small losses add up, as it either means a deductible on her insurance or forfeiting the loss.
She’s been in her current location since January and this is her first break in. Before that, she’d only had to deal with shoplifting.
Now, after the break in, she says she feels less safe.
What has gotten her through the ordeal is her staff, she says.
“I have amazing staff who came in and cleaned up, and watched the shop until I got in. They had my back,” said Demoline.
Her assistant manager’s husband came and put the plywood on the door.
It’s that she has great staff and customers that’s she’s held onto, she added.
“Everyone was so willing to help. It is wonderful to see that community spirit and that support.”
Reports of mischief in downtown Ponoka increased over the summer from the year before, but break-ins were actually down, according to Ponoka RCMP statistics.
From May 1, 2020 to Aug. 31, 2020, 20 break-and-enters into businesses in the downtown core were reported to the Ponoka RCMP detachment, compared to 11 reported break-ins in the same time period in 2021.
Of those 2020 break-ins, charges were laid in one case. Four were concluded to be unfounded and 15 files had insufficient evidence to proceed.
Of the 2021 cases, two are currently still under investigation and the nine other files had insufficient evidence.
Outside of the summer stats, Redneck Barbie was broken into in March, 2021. In that case, a suspect was identified from video surveillance and charges were laid.
In 2020, from May 1 to Aug. 31, there were six reports of mischief. One charge was laid, in three cases there wasn’t enough evidence to lay charges, one was determined to be unfounded, and one was cleared through restorative justice.
That number during the same months in 2021 jumped to 25 reports.
Charges were laid in three cases.Two were unfounded, and in 15 of the files, no suspects were identified and there was insufficient evidence to go forward.
Two files remain open, and in one case, the victim declined to lay charges.
‘Mischief’ may include anything from broken windows, graffiti or other damage to a property in cases were a property isn’t entered, Cpl. Phil Fortin of the Ponoka RCMP detachment explained.
Fortin says investigating members found no specific correlating reason for the increase in mischief incidents.
In general, crimes of mischief may increase during the summer when days are longer or more youths are out of school, he says.
“There’s certainly an increase (in mischief) but it shows citizens are looking out for each other,” said Cpl. Fortin, adding that not all the reports of mischief come from property owners, but from concerned citizens.
“These behaviours are certainly nice to see.”
Fortin confirmed that the Shoppers Drug Mart had been broken into on Sept. 1 and electronics were stolen. Members are working on identifying a suspect from the surveillance footage.
The bowling alley also recently sustained some damage and is included in the stats.
Wisdom Seekers Emporium, located at 5033 49 Ave., was broken into on Sept. 13, and some custom jewellery was taken.
Lori Elliott, co-owner with her husband Don Elliott, says she’s frustrated and at her “wit’s end.”
“It is definitely an issue and people in this town need to be aware of what’s happening,” she said.
Elliot added that she and other local business owners feel the town needs to invest more funding to increase police presence.
She says she believes there is a plan to bring some business owners together to approach the town on the subject.
“As these break-ins are a police matter and are currently still under police investigation, we feel it would be best to leave any public comments to the Ponoka RCMP at this time,” said town communications manager Sandra Smith in a statement.
“With that said, crime prevention and community safety are important issues and the town will continue to monitor this matter and respond as appropriate,” said Smith.
Fortin says downtown areas are also typically high-target areas because of the density of businesses, alleyways and level of foot traffic.
As it’s sometimes hours after a crime has occurred that someone becomes aware of it and reports it, video surveillance is key in identifying and locating suspects, he says.
The issue with some video surveillance is the footage is either two low of a resolution to clearly see faces, or the memory storage deletes images on an automatic schedule before they can be downloaded and sent to police.
Fortin says he understands COVID-19 hit businesses hard and they might not be able to afford high-quality security cameras, but says “Just having something —anything — in relation to security systems, is better than nothing.”
Cameras that overlook the street are also helpful in solving other crimes, such as hit and runs or assaults, says Fortin.
Other steps to take to deter crime include leaving lights on outside and above doorways, with working bulbs, security systems with motion sensing alarms that are audible and loud, keeping cash locked up in a secondary location from the cash register, and reporting any suspicious activity.
Other tips are good locks, steels doors and locking everything up at the end of the day.
Often criminals may hang around or ‘scope out’ a business before coming back later to break in, says Fortin, adding that the RCMP will respond to calls of suspicious behaviour and do a patrol.
As far as what the RCMP need to effectively do their jobs, Fortin says “it always boils down to resources.”
Citizens on Patrol (COP) is now operational again after COVID-19 halted their involvement and the RCMP has received a few calls from them, says Fortin.
COP has a direct line to the RCMP, so when they report suspicious activity, the RCMP is able to check it out right away.