Police staffing levels, officer response times, communication between departments and sentence lengths for criminal behavior were all subjects of discussion at meeting on crime reduction jointly hosted by the Prince Albert and District Chamber of Commerce and the Saskatchewan Construction Association on Wednesday.
Concerned business owners packed the Coronet Hotel conference room to listen to presentations on crime rates and prevention methods in Prince Albert. Attendees then had a chance to ask questions from a panel that included business, government and law enforcement representatives.
“It’s not just us seeing an issue. It’s everyone,” said Ryan Finch, a manager with Lake Country Co-op, and one of many business representatives in attendance. “It’s nice to get some collaboration and some prevention techniques.”
Finch said he was happy to see business owners get together and discuss possible solutions. He said there needs to be more collaboration to reduce crime, especially with the larger businesses in Prince Albert.
“The issues we’re facing aren’t just one person’s problem,” he said. “I know there’s lots of emphasis on the mayor here, but I think, as a community, we need to come together and do more. See something, say something—the Crime Stoppers motto—is perfect. If you see something not right, say something and report it. I think we just need to do better.”
The large number of vacancies in the Prince Albert Police Service (PAPS) and local RCMP detachment were the biggest point of discussion. PAPS alone has six vacancies in the department. That number will jump to eight in the near future when two more members retire.
PAPS has another five officers still in training. They’re expected to join the service after graduating police college at the end of May.
Chief Jon Bergen was in attendance for Wednesday’s meeting. He told attendees that all police departments are struggling to recruit more members.
“There are some delays in filling a position,” Bergen said during an interview afterwards. “Once we hire a qualified applicant, it’s four months through basic police college training. Of course, there are demands across the province, and the police colleges are trying to accommodate all municipal police services, making sure they can do all they can to provide the training we need to make sure we are fully staffed.”
Bergen said some of their vacancies are due to new positions created in the last year that haven’t been filled. They’ve also had police officers transfer to other police services, plus a number of retirements.
“That’s something that’s been observed across the country in policing,” Bergen said. “It’s definitely not unusual to Prince Albert, but it does take some time to rebuild, and as we rebuild, we, unfortunately, do not run all teams fully staffed. The more members we have and the more tools, that just leads to more we can do for the community.
“There’s always going to be turnover in policing through retirements and resignations for personal reasons,” he added. “But, we’re aggressively recruiting right now.”
PAPS officers were asked during the meeting if negative attention and critical comments about police officers were affecting the services ability to recruit. One attendee told the panel he didn’t know why anyone would want to be a police officer due to the amount of verbal abuse they take in the media and online.
Bergen acknowledged that the Prince Albert Police Service, and other services, have received some negative attention in the past two years, but doesn’t believe it’s affecting recruitment.
“Policing is a challenging career (and) it always has been,” Bergen said during the interview. “We’ve been under a lot of social pressures, and not just in Prince Albert, but across the country and even further. Still, policing is an excellent career that provides many opportunities. It’s still something that we see great interest in.”
Bergen added that he believes the community is very supportive of PAPS, and looks to them to be part of the solution to the community’s problems.
Several business owners in attendance expressed frustration with the lengthy police response time. At least one business owner called for Mayor Greg Dionne to take the mic and outline the City’s plans for hiring more officers so police could get on the scene faster.
Dionne got up to speak at the podium, but moderator Mark Cooper of the Saskatchewan Construction Association told attendees he would not ask the mayor to respond because that wasn’t why Dionne was invited. The Daily Herald has reached out to the mayor for an interview. We will update the story if we receive an answer.
One contractor in attendance told the panel tools stolen from a job site in La Ronge were later posted for sale by a Saskatoon account on the online classifieds site Kijiji. The contractor notified RCMP of the findings, but was told to contact Saskatoon Police instead. When he did so, police told him to call the RCMP because it was their investigation. By the time the details were sorted, the tools were gone.
Insp. Brent McDonald represented PAPS on the five-person panel. He told attendees situations like that should not happen, and urged them to be more assertive when reporting crimes, even if it means talking to a supervisor.
Afterwards, Bergen said there’s a definite need for collaboration between partners, and not just between police services. He said addressing root causes of crime, and property crime in particular, requires province-wide partnerships to reduce addictions, homelessness and other social issues.
Bergen said they’re proud of the partnerships they’ve already established, and said they need to boost them even more in the future.
Many business owners expressed frustration with the lack of attention given to smaller crimes. One attendee told the panel the same person came into his store every day and stole a small item, like a chocolate bar or a sandwich. The business owner had problems getting an officer to show up because the theft was so small, even though the thefts were a regular occurrence.
Some panels members urged residents to start installing security cameras and collect video footage of known thieves—something they said was effective at reducing small thefts in other communities, like Saskatoon.
Wednesday’s meeting came after discussions between the Chamber, Saskatchewan Construction Association, Prince Albert Construction Association, and local MLAs, among others. Prince Albert Chamber of Commerce CEO Patty Hughes said they plan to have similar meetings in other markets once they’ve gathered feedback from the local businesses.
“We will be meeting again for sure to keep this ball rolling,” she said.
Like Bergen, Hughes stressed that vandalism, theft, and property crime were significant problems across the province. She said the Chamber may start advocating for police colleges to open up more training positions, but nothing has been decided.