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Police just as frustrated by “catch and release” justice sytem

Barrhead RCMP host virtual town hall and lead discussion on everything from school bus fly-bys to bail hearings

BARRHEAD - Do not hesitate to call the RCMP.

That is one of the main messages Barrhead RCMP Detachment commander Sgt. Bob Dodds hopes the viewers take away from a Nov. 22 virtual town hall. 

Barrhead Cpl. Filipe Vicente and Sgt. Lee Drinkwater from the Wesltock Traffic Unit also joined Dodds in the County of Barrhead council chamber, which hosted the event.

"Our goal is to engage the public that we serve," he said, adding the detachment has tried to host several public forums with mixed success.

School bus fly-bys

One of the reasons Dodds invited Drinkwater to participate in the town hall was to discuss the issue of school bus fly-bys, a practice that the detachment received multiple complaints about, especially early in the year.

One problem area, in particular, reported was a school bus stop about 10 kilometres south of Barrhead on Highway 33.

"[If a detachment] reports a particular area or [school bus route], we will try to target our patrols to catch the offenders," he said. 

Drinkwater added that the offence, which under the Alberta Traffic Safety Act carries a fine of $567 and six demerit points, of driving by a school bus with its lights flashing goes beyond when it is stopped.

"[The school buses' amber] flashing lights come on first, indicating that the bus is about to stop; if you elect to pass the bus at that point or when it has come to a complete stop, it is still an offence," he said.

Admittedly, Drinkwater said, even after tailoring patrols to problem areas, it is rare that police would be able to catch an offender in the act.

He added that if a witness can get the licence plate number of the offending vehicle and report it to the police promptly, the vehicle's registered owner can be charged.

"Even if you can't identify who was driving," Drinkwater said. "But because we, as police, did not witness the crime, we would need the witness to provide a written statement and testify in court."

Dodds interjected that in the absence of police or another witness, a charge can be levied on the strength of photographic evidence.

"Our school buses are equipped with excellent cameras that capture the faces of oncoming vehicles and the licence plates," he said.

Visibility of police, expectations and what to report to police

Although Dodds said he understands the public's wants and that police want to be more visible in the community, with limited resources and such a large area to patrol, it is challenging to maintain visibility.

"The expectation is that if we have a complaint in Barrhead, Tiger Lily, Goose Lake or anywhere else in the detachment area, a member will get in a police car, travel to the complaint, deal with the situation as best they can on the scene," he said. "This serves multiple purposes. It gives the complainant that personal connection with the police and creates additional visibility as the member travels to and from the location."

But having said that, Dodds reiterated that sometimes that is not possible, noting the Barrhead Detachment is not a 24-hour detachment.

"Detachments like ours, and even those slightly larger, do not have the resources," he said.

In those cases, Dodds explained that the operational communications inn centre in Edmonton fields calls to the detachment, which assesses and then, depending on the severity, despatches Barrhead members who are on-call.

However, he said he encourages residents to call in complaints regardless of whether they believe anyone is on duty.

"Because, if we don't know about it, we are not going to adjust for it," Dodds said. "If someone is racing around town at a particular time or activity, we can push our patrols to an area and adjust our shifts to address it."

To report a crime, complaints of suspicious activity, and the like, Dodds said residents can call the detachment's 24-hour complaint line 780-674-2696 or through the administration line Monday to Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5 p.m., adding for the less serious matters, via the RCMP website

"If it is an emergency, call 911," he said.

Vicente noted that in the majority of crime categories, crime statistics, when comparing the latest quarter from July to September, compared to the same period in previous years, have decreased.

The exception is persons crimes, offences directed at an individual, such as assault, extorsion, et cetera.

"It has gone up about 10 per cent," he said, adding that, unfortunately, it is also an area where police activity, in terms of prevention, has little impact. "A lot of these things, such as sexual assaults, are domestic or are family related in nature that happen behind closed doors. We do not see many physical crimes against individuals committed by strangers on the street, such as your common assaults. Barrhead continues to be a safe community, especially compared to others." 

On the property crime side, overall, the quarter was the lowest the detachment has seen in five years.

Part of the reason for the decrease, Vicente said, is a lot of the area's "frequent fliers" are behind bars, including some of the best and more prolific drug traffickers.

The one property crime, Vicente said, that police are seeing a lot of lately is fraud.

"People are buying stuff on Facebook and Kijiji and not getting what they expected," he said, adding the other area is seeing an uptick in online scams.

Police authority and justice system

Dodds said the police are as frustrated as anyone in the "catch and release" where criminals seem to be released quicker than it takes to arrest.

He said under Bill C-75, which the federal government introduced about five years ago, people facing charges in court "must be released under the least onerous conditions possible."

"It doesn't mean they can't be held in custody [until their trial date], but it makes it very difficult," Dodds said.

Although he said there is discussion among parliamentarians to revisit the legislation, the talk has centred around violent offenders and not those charged with property offences.

"The vast majority of what we deal with in Barrhead are property offences," he said, noting in the last quarter, members responded to 55 person crime offences compared to 159 property offences. 

Dodds also noted that there has been a lot of discussion in the public about firearms offences.

He said in about mid-October, Barrhead RCMP arrested a 52-year-old Gunn man, charging him with multiple weapons-related offences, following a report of a suspicious or abandoned vehicle.

Among the weapons police confiscated was a prohibited Second World War-era STEN submachine gun with two prohibited 30-round magazines.

"That person had a criminal record, had a prohibited firearm in his possession, and when he was placed in front of a justice of the peace, and was released on a no-cash bail. His only condition was that he had to surrender the registered handguns that he still had, and he was out the door," Dodds said. "He never did surrender his firearms, and he is now at large, and we are trying to round him up."

Dodds said despite all the challenges, Barrhead remains a safe community, adding the public and the police must work together to keep it that way by taking common-sense preventative measures such as locking up their property, installing motion sensor lights and cameras, getting to know one's neighbours and calling police promptly about anything they deemed suspicious.

Vicente also cautioned residents about confronting would-be criminals, saying he often hears residents talk about arming themselves and shooting those who trespass and attempt to steal things on their property.

"We understand people's frustration. Everyone has been a victim of these crimes at one time or another," he said. "But the use of force, whether the police or the public, must be within reason."

Barry Kerton,

Barry Kerton

About the Author: Barry Kerton

Barry Kerton is the managing editor of the Barrhead Leader, joining the paper in 2014. He covers news, municipal politics and sports.
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