Ponoka RCMP Staff Sgt. Chris Smiley presented to town council during their regular meeting on Dec. 10, including an update on staffing numbers and an explanation of the detachment’s year-end stats for 2019.
A new member arrived in November, a cadet started in early December and an experienced member will arrive in early 2020.
Two corporals have transfers pending and will need to be replaced. The detachment is still short a sergeant position and two constables.
When the new members arrive, they will undergo six months of field training, and won’t be on the official schedule yet.
“We are still in a rebuilding phase … We are months away from being fully staffed,” said Smiley.
Break and enters and mental health
Crimes to persons and property were down in 2019 and Smiley told council the only stat that concerned him somewhat were the number of break and enters.
“That’s really the only anomaly jumping out on the stats.”
There was a 47 per cent increase in break and enters in 2019. The numbers are deceptive, however.
Most of the break in’s are into garages, and some at businesses, and others are different offenses that fall under that category, such as unlawfully dwelling in a house.
“We don’t have a huge break and enter problem as far as residential break and enters.”
Smiley says when he started digging deeper into the numbers, he noticed that almost half of the B and E reports were concluded as unfounded, after members investigated and checked the properties.
“It is not uncommon to be dispatched to a break and enter in progress … we go over there — priority one call — and nobody is there. We do have enough of those in this town that it’s showing up on our stats as an elevated case of break and enters,” said Smiley.
“You can also look on our stat sheets and see the number of mental health calls we take,” he said, explaining that some of the people who call about someone in their house may be hearing or seeing things that aren’t real.
“There is a segment of our residential break and enters that are not exactly as they seem.”
Coun. Carla Prediger asked what actions are being taken to minimize false alarms.
Smiley answered that in some cases the person is apprehended under the mental health act and taken directly to the Centennial Centre, but to do so, RCMP must be confident the person is a risk to themselves or others.
Sometimes though, the person is released almost immediately after being dropped off.
“We’ve taken them up there, and we aren’t even driving away and they’re walking across the parking lot — they’ve been released already,” he said.
“Just because they might be off their meds … or just because they’re experiencing some issues like this doesn’t mean we can automatically apprehend them and take them to the hospital so we rely on family and friends in a lot of situations.”
After checking the house, sometimes they will ask who they can call to come sit with the person, or who they could go visit.
Sometimes the calls also come from seniors with dementia.
“It is tough. We have to be empathetic and sensitive to what these people are experiencing. To them it’s very real.”
Prediger stated she has previously worked with RCMP K Division on rural crime mental health initiatives and asked if Ponoka is working on any initiatives to address addictions and mental health concerns as other rural areas have done.
Smiley answered they established a hub committee just over a year ago, which meets with other agencies.
“There’s only so much the police can do. We’re not counsellors, we aren’t therapists.”
Prediger pressed again, stating the previously given statistics.
“Given the numbers and the increasing rise, my question is what would we be looking at in the future to minimize that as other communities have?”
Smiley then asked for examples of such initiatives and Prediger answered that Drayton Valley, Breton and Thorsby have implemented such K Division initiatives.
The Ponoka RCMP aggressively monitors habitual offenders and rely heavily on their partnership with probation which can then provide counselling or addiction services, says Smiley.
Such K Division initiatives are “still in their infancy” but are coming, according to K Division.
Mayor Rick Bonnett asked how the RCMP is deterring traffic issues and alleviating citizen’s concerns on Hwy. 2, 2A, and Hwy. 53.
Smiley answered that there are traffic benchmarks all members need to meet with, but if they are tied up with higher priority calls, traffic enforcement becomes a lower priority, adding that there have been no traffic fatalities in town, even in higher-traffic areas such as schools.
“Sometimes it doesn’t get the attention when resources are spread in other areas. That’s just the nature of it.”
The RCMP conducted several check-stops from December to New Year’s Eve.
According to the stats, there were 10 hostage and abduction incidents in Ponoka in 2019.
Coun. Kevin Ferguson asked if that number would be considered an anomaly.
“All the other numbers are considerably lower,” said Ferguson.
“Would you say you just had a bad year in terms of that?”
Smiley answered that the bulk of those were custody order violations where one parent took a child without proper permission.
“There’s no unsolved kidnappings and nobody’s still missing, we’ll put it that way.”
Other incidents were drug and mental health related.
According to the stats, vehicle thefts in Ponoka are down 12 per cent in 2019 in Ponoka from 2018, but are up 110 per cent over the last five years.
Ferguson asked if the overall rise in vehicle thefts had to do with tough economic times.
“In my experience, even though we are having some challenges economically, most of the people we are arresting, I don’t believe had gainful employment ever so I struggle to say, ‘oh, it’s the economy.’”
Addictions and mental health are huge contributing factors to vehicle thefts, as well as unlocked vehicles, he says.
“It is high in this province and this central Alberta area. It is unfair.”