Edmonton police clarify stance on crime spike being linked to oilpatch woes

EDMONTON — Edmonton police tried to clarify their stance Monday that the downturn in the oilpatch is linked to a spike in crime.

While speaking to reporters Sept. 28, Chief Rod Knecht said officers have responded to 9,000 more calls for service this year, compared to the same time in 2014.

Violent crime is up 12 per cent, property crime 18 per cent and the number of 911 emergency calls is up by almost 14 per cent.

Knecht said the calls for service are not all serious crimes, but added this “significant” jump means that sometimes his officers take longer to respond.

“When oil is up, we are busy, and when oil is down, we are really busy,” Knecht said Monday. “And that is just because a lot of folks are coming back to Edmonton from, say, Fort McMurray, Cold Lake, other points north, and they are staging here in Edmonton waiting for the price of oil to go back up so they can go back to work.”

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On Sunday, the EPS sent out a media release defending its position on the topic after Fort McMurray Mayor Melissa Blake reportedly asked Knecht to provide evidence of the connection.

“The price of oil is not the only factor behind a higher crime rate; population growth in the city and the local unemployment rate are also contributing factors. However as the statistics show, the connection between the price of oil and crime rates in the city is clear,” EPS spokesperson Cheryl Sheppard said in an email.

The EPS also provided a four-page document of statistics it gathered linking the crime rate to oil prices. (See document below).

Mayor Blake responded Monday, saying she felt the need to speak out.

“It’s not the first time that some bad vibes have come my community’s way from the Edmonton chief of police.”

“The simple, I guess, alliterations he uses in highlighting the support that he needs kind of throws us under the bus.

“When you hear that it’s Fort McMurray and Cold Lake who have workers who are going back to Edmonton causing this correlation in rising crime rates with the decrease in oil price – I just don’t think it’s as simple as pointing your finger at one or two communities, or even the whole north, saying, ‘it’s their fault.'”

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She added the region has already been portrayed negatively in some media coverage, and didn’t expect those words from Edmonton’s police chief.

WATCH: Edmonton police release data making connections between unemployment, slumping oil prices and increased crime in Edmonton. Michel Boyer reports.

“When it’s our friends and allies that we work collaboratively with on our policing indicating that it’s my community in particular that’s creating this problem for them, it’s not what I would expect to hear.”

Blake said the 2012 census showed 40,000 people staying in work camps in the region.

When it comes to crime rates in Wood Buffalo, the mayor said there have been decreases in a lot of areas over the last four years, but she’s cautious about statistics.

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“I can’t draw comparisons to the price of oil with the consequence of crime in the community, but some of those marker points that we’re looking at, it doesn’t take much to have a big effect. So, if we have a very low number of a certain category and you see an uptake, then it looks terrible on your statistics board.”

READ MORE: Edmonton’s crime rate remains unchanged while other major cities’ decline

Knecht, who was out of town on business Monday, said, “this is not an exercise in finger-pointing,” but rather an attempt to explain the factors of criminal activity.

(Scroll down to read Knecht’s full statement)

Acting EPS Chief Brian Simpson addressed the issue on Monday, clarifying the people being arrested weren’t all or specifically from northern Alberta.

“We are experiencing a migration of individuals into the city,” said Simpson. “We always see that. It’s a cross section of people from all aspects of life; it’s not one specific group over another.”

“We see a lot of migration from various parts of the country into Edmonton because of the services that this community offers,” added Simpson, “and that’s one of the impacts we have as a result of the size and what we do offer as a community.”

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He added the police looked at other factors in addition to the statistics, including population growth, economic impact, and who is moving into the community.

Acting EPS Chief Brian Simpson speaking on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. Vinesh Pratap, Global News

Blake thanked Simpson for “setting the record straight.”

“I don’t think the slight was necessarily intended the way that it’s been interpreted. It’s just that I can’t let those things stand unanswered. The fact that they have [been] clarified is reassuring.”

“We work better together than we do apart,” Blake added.

WATCH: A slumping economy may lead to new jobs with the Edmonton police. Chief Rod Knecht said crime is up and he needs dozens more officers to handle it all. Fletcher Kent reports. 

Knecht said it was almost like someone threw a switch last November. That’s when the price of oil tumbled to below US$70 a barrel after the OPEC cartel declined to cut oil production.

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“We saw a (crime) spike occur then and it has continued on since then. You can say the crime rate is linked, to a certain degree, to the price of oil.”

Oil was trading not much above $44 US on Monday.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that 35,000 jobs in the oil and gas industry have been shed so far this year. Last week, Calgary-based TransCanada told its workforce that more staff cuts are on the horizon.

READ MORE: More job cuts coming at TransCanada

To deal with the increase in calls, Knecht is asking the City of Edmonton for 80 more officers and support staff. He also plans to assign more police to work crime cases instead of other duties, such as responding to minor traffic accidents.

Another staffing challenge is recruiting people who can meet qualification standards.

He said the Edmonton Police Service gets plenty of applications, but some people can’t pass the physical fitness requirements.

The city has experienced this crime “hangover” in the wake of an energy boom before, the chief said.

He said no one knows how long this downturn is going to last, but he believes it is early in the game.

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Knecht, who is a former deputy commissioner of the RCMP and former head of the Mounties in Alberta, said this is his fourth time riding a boom-and-bust cycle in the province.

“We will get through this one as well,” he said. “This is life.”

Knecht’s statement:

“I have the greatest respect for Mayor Blake and have had the good fortune of working closely with her in the past. She is an astute politician that is committed to the interests of her community.

“I am not as familiar with the crime statistics in Fort McMurray as I was when Mayor Blake and I worked together during my many visits to her community. However, I am acutely aware of the statistics here in Edmonton. They show that our calls for service are up by 9,480 calls thus far in 2015 – an 8.4 per cent increase over the same time period last year. We have seen a sharp increase in crime since the fall of 2014 and we have been working to understand the underlying causes behind that sharp and sudden increase.

“Our observation of crime metrics and the increase in calls for service in Edmonton during the current economic downturn parallels the drop in the price of oil. This is not unique to Edmonton as I talk to my policing colleagues across Canada. Our front-line police officers have told me about their own observations of individuals and families that have been impacted by unemployment. The end result is desperation, and ultimately criminal activity.

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“This is not an exercise in finger-pointing, but rather an explanation of the factors of criminal activity that will help police and politicians alike, ensure all Albertans in every community are safe and supported.”

Oil prices vs. crime rates

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. It was updated at 1:59 p.m. MT Sunday, Oct. 4 to include the statistics released by police and again on Monday, Oct. 5 to include comments from Simpson and Knecht.

With files from John Cotter, The Canadian Press; Caley Ramsay and Emily Mertz, Global News.

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