“Readily available” methamphetamine and opioids are playing a factor in recent increases in violent and property crime, Prince Albert’s police chief said Wednesday, as the force struggles to keep up with service calls equivalent to what he says would be seen in a city of 100,000.
Jon Bergen held a press conference to brief media on the year-end crime numbers for the city and to discuss how the force intends to handle current trends in both violent and non-violent crimes.
Last year saw an increase in both property and persons crime as compared to 2018, however, some driving offences, such as impaired driving, fell year-over-year despite increased enforcement.
Bergen described 2019 as a year the police service was “responsive with our resources to address crime trends in the moment.”
He said the police responded to a spike in crimes against persons with a task force dedicated to investigating violent crimes that had occurred and to be proactive to prevent future crime.
That task force, he said, led to the rise in violent crime stabilize later in the year.
Then, the police observed property crime trending and responded with another task force.
“The work of this team was observed in our 166 possession of stolen property charges … double the charges over the previous five years.”
The level of property crime then stabilized and was held lower than the five-year average. The result, Bergen said, of that spike followed by lower crime rates was a slight increase after a record low year for property crime in 2018.
Prince Albert finished 2019 with 3,329 reported property rimes, a 7.84 per cent increase fro the year prior.
Some of that increase, Bergen said, was due to greater enforcement.
Possession of stolen property charges were “nearly double” what they had been in the five years prior, Bergen said. Last year the force laid 166 charges, an 86.5 per cent increase over the year prior.
“I relate that directly to the special task team that we formed to respond to property crime as it was trending up,” he said.
“Throughout those investigations, there were a number of people that were found in possession of property that was stolen and they were charged appropriately. We’re holding people accountable for the thefts and through the work of that reactive team.”
Bergen said the police force is also doing what it can to investigate and charge those responsible for violent crime in the community.
“Unfortunately 2019 was a tragic, tragic year for the people who lost lives in our community, and I will start by offering condolences to those who lost a loved one and those who suffered a tragic event,” Bergen said.
The city saw six homicides and six attempted homicides in 2019.
“Our Criminal Investigation Division is committed …. And has proceeded with charges in three of the six incidents of homicide,” he said.
“Their work continues and they’re working towards charges and conviction on each of these investigations.”
Crimes against the person increased by 11.39 per cent in 2019. There were three times as many homicides and attempted murder cases than the year prior. Significant increases were also seen in sexual violations, robbery, uttering threats and criminal harassment.
The most common person crime was assault, accounting for 797 cases, a five per cent increase over 2018.
Bergen said seeing so many homicide cases for Prince Albert is unusual, but not unheard of. He acknowledged that the data can lead some to question their safety.
“This is our community,” Bergen said.
“This is our home and we are fully engaged in keeping it safe. I feel safe in this community. I believe our members feel safe in this community. We have been challenged with a number of violent offences, but again, we’re responding in a way to curb that and definitely maximizing our response to do all we can to hold the people responsible — and also working on initiatives to prevent it in the first place.”
Force focusing on how to best deploy officers
Some of those challenges continue to be the focus for the coming year.
“Heading into 2020, our challenges continue to include crimes involving drugs, violence and weapons. Our offices also deal with a high number of calls that are non-criminal in nature, such as those involving mental health issues or addictions issues that have more to do with poverty than crime.”
Those non-criminal calls are addressed by the city’s new Police and Crisis Team (PACT). Formed in late 2018, it includes two officers, two social workers and a psychiatric nurse. The team helps provide support to the patrol and frontline units, serving to reduce officers’ workloads while also dealing with people in crisis in a way that’s more beneficial to them.
Bergen said the force’s effort this year will be targeted towards gangs, drugs and violence, as well as curbing property crime, which he said is more prevalent during the summer months.
“We know we need to be aggressive in our response to methamphetamine trafficking, which fuels terrible addictions.”
The police force had fewer cases of methamphetamine trafficking in 2019, but the drugs they did seized totalled almost three kilograms, or six pounds. That’s more than double the amount of methamphetamine seized in 2018. Seeing twice as much meth seized despite a reduction in the number of times the police seized meth means the drug is “readily available.”
“It is readily available. It’s going to fuel the addictions we’re already responding to. Addiction has to be fueled somehow. Unfortunately, that is quite often through property crime. But it can also be seen in violent crime too.”
Part of that, Bergen said, is because someone who is battling addiction and is reliant on drugs won’t behave the same way a sober person was. That’s, he said, one way the PACT comes in.
The PACT is “a great resource to our frontline members in providing that early response and connecting somebody that is suffering from an addiction to the proper resources for support.”
The police service is also tracking crime and gang involvement. That’s part of the job of the Integrated Crime Reduction Team, which is made up of eight members, four each from the city police and RCMP, working with a crime analyst.
“Definitely there is violence within gang activity here and we do see it. We are aware of it and we need to respond to it and continue to respond to it,” Bergen said.
“Is it a big factor? It is a factor. It is going to be part of our continued response going into 2020.”
Bergen said that as the police force works to address these challenges, it is also mindful of the cost of policing in Prince Albert.
“What I’m approaching 2020 with is to maximize the resources we do have. Make sure that our existing resources are fully engaged in the areas that are going to have the greatest impact,” he said.
Part of that is ensuring that each platoon is fully staffed with 12 members — one staff sergeant, two sergeants and nine constables — and its own police dog unit.
Having 12 members of each platoon of frontline patrol shifts is something the force has been working to maintain over the last few years.
“We’re going to enhance that by having other areas alleviate some of the pressures of our frontline patrol units,” Bergen said.
That includes PACT, bylaw and community safety officers.
“When we can shift some of the workloads off in special areas, it allows our first-line response, our patrol units, to respond differently and maximize the resources.”
Currently, the police service has two canine units, which it only uses at night. The goal for the new year is to have four units, one for each platoon.
Prince Albert has 103 sworn officers. Per capita, it makes the city one of the most heavily-policed in Canada. But Bergen says it’s more complicated than that.
“Our members responded to more than 37,000 calls in 2019. These are call volumes more typically seen in communities with populations of around 100,00 that have nearly double the resources to respond with,” Bergen said.
Cities of that size have about 185 people on the police force. Of Prince Albert’s officers, 23 are funded by the province. “When you talk about tax pressures created by the cost of policing, we’re looking broader than just the city of Prince Albert to see where we can receive support to help a staffing model that’s appropriate,” Bergen said.
That’s why the police chief’s focus is on how he uses his resources, as opposed to how many he has.
“We will achieve our goals with our continued efforts of all our members and with our new teams, including our Integrated Crime Reduction Team, which will help alleviate pressures off our frontline officers and assistant in complex investigations,” he said.
“We’ll be more visible in our community with our continuation of our new Community Policing Unit, who will patrol our shopping areas, our downtown, our rotary trail and support education of our youth as we work within our schools. We will continue in our efforts and focus to enhance traffic safety with our Combined Traffic Safety Services Unit.”
“In our many efforts, we will continue to work to be part of the solution when it comes to addressing the root causes of criminal activity and complete it, including supporting the efforts of our youth and local community leaders. I’d like to once again thank the public for their support and efforts to keep us informed of suspicious activity in their neighbourhoods and provide us with feedback on ways we can improve our local response. Our goal is to be proactive and we will continue to listen to the community as we work to combat all illegal activity.”