2020 was an “unprecedented, challenging year” for policing due to global issues that also affected Ponoka, such as COVID-19, anti-racism movements and an ineffective Canadian justice system, detachment commander Staff Sgt. Chris Smiley told Ponoka town council Feb. 9.
Staff Sgt. Smiley and Sgt. Erin St-Cyr gave presentations on year-end stats and the detachment’s annual performance plan to council over Zoom during council’s regular meeting.
“In my whole career there’s certainly never been a more polarizing time,” said Smiley.
During his presentation, Smiley addressed the murder of a young mother in Ponoka last year.
“If people forget everything (else) tonight, I want you to remember the name Chantelle Firingstoney,” he said.
Firingstoney was 26 years old, a mother of five and she was murdered on Nov. 5, 2020 in Ponoka, allegedly by an intimate partner who was out on bail after having been charged with a murder already in 2020.
“I can’t be mad about this anymore, I’m just really sad about it,” said Smiley.
“We can make all the arrests we do … there is a serious missing link here folks, and the prosecutor’s office is one of them, the laws that the criminals are in and back out and re-offend immediately — that is a serious problem.
“We’ve got a lot of laws that protect people’s rights … the justice system is concerned with people’s rights, with people who have been arrested and charged, and somewhere along the way, we’ve lost the rights of victims and we’ve lost the rights of citizens to feel safe in their communities.
“I certainly don’t have all the answers for that,” he said.
“It does merit notice though, when Chantelle was murdered, there were no protests.
“Nobody carried a sign for her in our town. And after a year of a lot of protests, and a lot of attacks on our office, on the institution of policing and on me personally, that didn’t go unnoticed.”
After Firingstoney was murdered, “those people were silent,” says Smiley, adding he feels there is a real disconnect between what a lot of citizens think is a problem compared to what is actually a problem.
According to Smiley, a main issue is recidivism (the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend).
“If you look at the media releases for the year, you start to see a recurring theme of recovery of stolen vehicles, arrests of people on break and enters and a number of violent crimes,” said Smiley.
“None of those people who were arrested for robbery, was this their first crime — many of them were out on bail, many of them were breaching court-ordered conditions, so if we can look at anything (recidivism) is key for most of this,” said Smiley.
“In this country, there is very little deterrent, and during COVID, so it could be safer for prisoners, a lot of them were released automatically throughout the year. So that happened, people need to know that,” he said.
“While we were still out doing our jobs every day, the courts shutdown, caused a backlog and the prosecutor’s office’s solution to that was simply staying proceedings and/or withdrawing charges altogether. That’s what we’re up against.
“I’m not sure what else we can do, as far as making these arrests, liaising with partner agencies such as probation and there’s mandatory counselling for people … we’re focusing on the police work part of the problem,” said Smiley.
“We’ve heard your frustration,” said Mayor Rick Bonnett, adding he and other councillors have brought policing concerns to the Solicitor General’s office and there have been discussions about policing at AUMA.
“The justice system and the judges have to do a better job of holding these people to task and making sure they’re off the streets so we do not have to continue to see and hear you guys going through all that paper work,” said Bonnett.
“We will continue to help push that.”
Smiley cautioned that statistics give a snapshot, but are not the total story.
“In no point in my career has that been more true than what we’ve experienced in 2020,” he said.
Looking at the crimes stats for the past five years, Smiley says nothing really jumps out as an anomaly.
Robberies were up significantly from 2019, with arrests made in the majority of the cases.
Theft under $5,000 was down 23 per cent in 2020.
Prisoner count for the year was down, from 575 prisoners lodged in their cells in 2019 to 474 in 2020. Smiley says no Stampede in 2020 affected that statistic.
“Classically, anywhere between 20 to 40 per cent of our prisoners from the entire year, we can see during Stampede time.”
In 2020, there were a number of arrests related to methamphetamine, which was a continuation of work done in 2019 with numerous operations and tactics.
In 2020, Ponoka RCMP handled nine public health occurrences that were reportable to the RCMP. Charges were laid in two of those incidents.
An arrest was made in March when a bait vehicle was strategically positioned, but the other two times it was attempted in 2020, the vehicles were left untouched.
During 2020, there was an increase in calls that had a relationship disharmony element to them, however, less of the files resulted in charges being laid.
In 2020, Ponoka RCMP had 278 spousal abuse investigations. 82 of those cases resulted in charges, or 29.5 per cent. In 2019, there were 250 spousal abuse investigations and 93 of those cases resulted in charges (37.2 per cent).
“(There was) definitely strain on families and people in 2020 but that didn’t result in a whole lot more extreme files or changes being laid which is quite interesting because early in the pandemic that was certainly a concern and something we were watching,” said Smiley.
Mental health calls
The Ponoka RCMP detachment is involved in a lot of mental health work, says Smiley.
“The men and women in our office are very good at that as well, we’ve got some strong relationships with the Centennial Centre and the Ponoka general hospital as well, where our worlds overlap where people are emotionally disturbed or are having acute episodes.”
Mental health calls for services in the town and county were up slightly from 282 in 2019 to 296 in 2020.
Smiley says the detachment sometimes receives feedback from the public, giving the opinion that Ponoka RCMP members need more training in dealing with mental health crises and de-escalation.
“I have to tell you, we get an awful lot of that training,” said Smiley.
The Ponoka RCMP detachment undergo annual recertification and continual additional training.
“I am very proud of the work our members do in this area.”
In 2020, none of the mental health calls for services required the use of force which resulted in any injury or the use or display of police intervention options (gun, taser, baton, pepper spray). In 2019, there was one mental health call where the use of force required was at the reportable level.
In the majority of cases, it is not necessary to arrest or apprehend individuals under the Mental Health Act, and police instead respond by de-escalating the situation, safety planning, and liaising with family and friends.
“Some days, it is simply checking in on people, listening and offering some advice when possible.”