‘We are under siege here’: Crime watch group urges rural Albertans to stay vigilant

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As rural Canadans confront a rising threat of property thefts, a crime watch association is reminding residents to be vigilant in protecting their homes and possessions from intruders.

“We’re trying to encourage people to take the extra steps by protecting their belongings, by locking it up,” said Trevor Tychkowsky, past-president of the Canada Rural Crime Watch Association, which signed a memorandum of understanding with RCMP on Feb. 15 to help keep rural communities safe.

“The days of keys left in vehicles, those days are done. The same thing goes for houses being left unlocked.”

The memorandum of understanding lays out the roles and responsibilities of both the crime watch group and the RCMP. With 55 member organizations consisting of close to 17,000 volunteers across the province, the Canada Rural Crime Watch Association’s role is to conduct “passive patrols” and report suspicious observations back to RCMP.

“It’s when we’re driving into town, when we’re driving to our lakes, when we’re driving to our neighbours, just being very vigilant of what we’re seeing and then reporting it if we think that we see something out of sorts,” said Tychkowsky. “Instead of thinking, ‘oh, the neighbour must have just gotten a new vehicle,’ don’t be afraid to report that in. We’re not getting the word by RCMP that they’re getting too many calls. We’re getting the word from the RCMP that we’re not getting enough calls. People are not calling that stuff in.”

Rural property owners say break-ins are becoming far too common.

On Monday, RCMP charged Okotoks homeowner Edouard Maurice and an alleged trespasser for an incident over the weekend in which police say shots were fired when Maurice confronted two people rummaging through his vehicles. Ryan Watson, now facing trespassing, mischief and theft charges, was transported to hospital with a gunshot wound to his arm.

Maurice is facing three charges of aggravated assault, pointing a firearm and careless use of a firearm.

Rural Canada RCMP detachments have seen a 16 per cent increase in Criminal Code offences over the past five years.

Garth Pritchard, a retired journalist and documentary filmmaker who lives outside of Carseland, a hamlet nearly 70 kilometres southeast of Calgary, said the situation has gotten out of hand.

“What’s happening is we are under siege here. Every single business is boarded up, every business has been burglarized more than once,” said Pritchard. “What we have here right now, in my opinion, is a huge Home Depot in which the criminals can come and take whatever they want, when they want, except they don’t have to pay when they leave. It’s bad.”

A warning is posted on a fence at the entrance to a rural property north of Okotoks. Jim Wells / Postmedia

David Schneider, an MLA who represents the southern Canada riding of Little Bow, said there’s an urgent need to educate property owners about the precautions they should take to avoid becoming victimized.

“I’ve lived in rural Canada all my life. Until the last two or three years, I never locked a door, I never locked a vehicle, I’ve never taken the keys out of a vehicle, and now I wouldn’t be caught dead leaving the yard without doing all those things,” he said. “Those are things that people who have lived in rural Canada most of their lives are going to have to start to become aware of, and I think they are.”

Schneider said he’s been to numerous town halls dealing with this problem and will be hosting one himself on March 10 in Nobleford, which is 30 kilometres north of Lethbridge. He said part of the issue comes down to staffing levels at local RCMP detachments.

“It seems like there’s always an ongoing issue trying to get a full complement of officers,” said Schneider. “At the end of the day, it’s the province that determines how much they’ll spend on law enforcement. If there’s an issue with not enough police officers, that’s a discussion for the provincial government.”

Rick Strankman, the MLA for Drumheller-Stettler, said the distance between RCMP detachments in rural areas, combined with lack of steep penalties for thieves, leaves them undeterred.

“It’s quite frustrating that our society is such that hoodlums are beginning to prey on people when they know that they can’t necessarily get timely police response times,” he said. “Those rural property owners want justice when somebody comes in there. If the justice is simply a slap on the wrist . . . well some of these shallow-minded people think that’s the cost of doing business.”


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