Mayor warns residents of potential rise in petty crime

City of Prince Albert -- Herald file photo.

Mayor Greg Dionne says residents need to be prepared for an increase in petty crime driven largely by changes to federal COVID-19 benefits.

Federal Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments ended on Oct. 3, and were replaced with the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), Canada Recovery Care Benefit (CRCB) and Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB). Despite those new programs, Dionne said he’s worried ending some COVID benefits will drive up minor thefts and break-ins.

As of Sept. 30, Prince Albert police have responded to more than 31,000 calls for service. That’s an increase of roughly 2,000 calls compared to the same time in 2019.

“I want to make it clear that the spike (in crime) has come because of COVID-19,” Dionne said. “Until COVID-19 is solved, we’re going to continue with these problems.

I would like to issue the general public an alert. The police department has already put a unit together to deal with this, but I’m afraid, because now the funding in COVID is being cut off, that we’re going to have a spike in petty crime.”

Dionne encouraged residents to report any suspicious activity they see to the police. He also advised residents to lock doors to garages, sheds and vehicles, and also make sure valuables are not left out in the open.

While calls for service have increased in 2020, some petty crimes, like break and enters, have actually fallen. Prince Albert police received 533 reports of break and enters in the first nine months of 2019. That number has dropped to 360 during the same time frame in 2020.

Police Chief Jon Bergen said that’s largely due to the economic shut down that occurred in at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. He said there’s no doubt crime trends have changed since businesses were allowed to reopen.

“When you look at shoplifting offences, or the petty type thefts, those weren’t occurring as often because we had stores that were closed,” Bergen explained. “Early on in the year, we made sure to staff differently and police differently. We observed and patrolled commercial properties as much as we could, and made sure that they were protected.”

“When those businesses were not open regularly, we knew it would be important to patrol as often and as regularly as we could,” he added. “When things started to open up, we saw crime trends change.”

The police department is already dealing with a spike in violent crime in Prince Albert. As of Sept. 30, Prince Albert police are involved in six homicide investigations involving the deaths of eight people—two of which were children.

Bergen said they’re leaning heavily on partner agencies and integrated units to address the issue, especially since some members of their staff have tested positive for COVID-19.

The department has created a slightly different unit that works at peak call times and focuses on other trends, one of which is break and enters.

Bergen said minor thefts and break-ins are often crimes of opportunity, and that’s something that hasn’t changed due to the pandemic.

“I think it’s an important message to all people to make sure to follow up those beset practices to protect your property,” he said. “You can do that through different things like lighting and making sure … your vehicles are locked and secured. All those steps help us to prevent those petty crimes that are often crimes of opportunity.

“The root drivers of those (crimes) are always a number of things, but definitely COVID has impacted what we’ve seen and how we’ve had to respond to different crimes.”

Crime rates across Canada have changed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. In April, Calgary police reported that crime had “dropped steadily” since mid-March, with break and enters and overall violence decreasing by around 40 per cent each. Commercial robberies, however, increased slightly. In August, the City of Winnipeg also reported an increase in violent crime and decrease in non-violent offences like shoplifting.

According to Statistics Canada, 17 Canadian police services reported a 16 per cent decrease in 13 different types of crime, despite seeing a seven per cent increase in calls for service. That change was largely attributed to a rise in wellness checks and domestic disturbance incidents. However, it also included a 46 per cent decrease in shoplifting, a 22 per cent decrease in residential breaking and entering, and a 15 per cent decrease in motor vehicle theft.

Those numbers represent data from the largest municipal police departments in Canada, along with the RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police. Together, those 17 departments serve almost 60 per cent of the country’s population. However, Statistics Canada said that may not be representative of COVID-related crime rates in the rest of the country, and suggested readers exercise caution when interpreting the findings.