Justice minister promises Albertan-inspired changes to address rural crime

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WATCH: Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer sits down with Global News' Fletcher Kent to talk about Alberta's rural crime crisis, how his community town halls are going and how he wants to improve the justice system. – Oct 31, 2019

Two weeks ago, Ken Stasiuk found himself in a standoff on a rural road with someone he pegged as a criminal.

Stasiuk lives on a farm near Rochester, Alta. He says crime in his community has become such a big problem he and his neighbours set up a kind of early warning system. When somebody sees something suspicious, they call everyone else.

On the day two weeks ago, they saw such a person. Half a dozen of Stasiuk’s friends jumped in their cars. Apparently, the “suspect” tried to flee but didn’t know the area.

He ended up in at a dead end, surrounded by Stasiuk and his friends. They called police and sat there waiting for officers to arrive.

“It’s gotten so bad, it’s in the middle of the day now. They don’t even wait until night,” Stasiuk said.

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“Here we are, standing here waiting for help. I don’t know if we’re going to get any. Hopefully the minister comes up with a plan.”

Alberta’s justice minister does say help is coming.

For the last couple of months, Doug Schweitzer has been touring Alberta, talking to people about their experiences with crime.

READ MORE: ‘People are pulling guns’: Alberta justice minister hears stories of frustration, vigilante acts on rural crime tour

He says he’s disturbed by what he’s heard.

He heard from one woman near Leduc who told him her home was broken into twice within 24 hours. Another person in Eckville described being beaten in an armed break-in. The attacker carried a shotgun, which thankfully jammed.

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Alberta Justice Minister visits Leduc on rural crime tour – Oct 16, 2019

Schweitzer says these stories, and the suggestions from the people telling them, will lead to changes that are over and above rural crime campaign promises from the United Conservatives.

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One possibility includes more police officers.

The province has been talking with municipalities about Alberta’s police funding model. These talks have created concerns that the province wants to saddle towns and counties with a greater share of their policing costs. Schweitzer says that’s not the plan.

READ MORE: Rural municipalities sound alarm over Alberta’s review of police funding

“The amount of money we invest into policing won’t change. We’re dedicated to that amount.”

If a new agreement can be reached, municipalities may pay more but Schweitzer says that would mean more police officers.

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Justice minister has been speaking with Albertans about rural crime – Oct 31, 2019

“It’s basically more pie.

“Right now the pie is this big and that’s coming out of provincial money. If we work with municipalities and have a partnership, it would just be a bigger pie and allow us to have more law enforcement in more rural communities in Alberta.”

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READ MORE: Calgary mayor, Alberta justice minister spar on Twitter over police budget impacts

The justice minister says expect other initiatives over the next weeks and months. He says it would make sense for Alberta to make it harder to sell popular stolen items like combine batteries and copper wire.

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Justice minister on crimes crushing rural Alberta – Oct 31, 2019

He says there’s also an appetite to get the court system to look at these crimes differently.

“I want to make sure our judges know the real impacts this is having on communities across Alberta.

“Under federal legislation, if you bring forward the proper authorities provincially, you can get community impact statements into a criminal proceeding. We’re exploring that right now.”

Stasiuk is hopeful these new ideas bear fruit. He suggests a tougher-on-crime approach.

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“I understand they have rights, but so do we. We aren’t committing crimes so why are our rights being violated?”

The former NDP government also tackled the rural crime problem.

In March of 2018, the province pledged an extra $10 million to fight rural crime. The money would pay for 39 new police officers, 40 new civilian staff and between eight and 10 new Crown prosecutors.

READ MORE: Alberta announces $10M, 39 RCMP officer positions, to fight rural crime

RCMP and the justice minister at the time said this approach would be targeted. Since it was announced, RCMP has said it has seen some rural crime drop by 10 per cent.

Current NDP MLA Joe Ceci says his party’s plan is working and he describes the UCP approach as “smoke and mirrors.”

“We haven’t seen anything other than him using those talking points repeatedly. If I was a rural municipal councillor, I would be saying: ‘Show me the actual plan.'”

Whatever path the province chooses to take, Ken Stasiuk does say it can’t only be about enforcement and stiffer penalties, although he’d like to see both of those things.

Stasiuk says he’s seen plenty of repeat offenders plague his community. Government must address root causes, too, he says.

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READ MORE: Alberta Budget 2019: What’s in it for Calgary and Lethbridge?

“As soon as they get out of prison, they have zero, nothing. They don’t have $10 to buy a meal. They don’t have a ride home. What do we expect them to do other than steal another vehicle to get home?”

Stasiuk adds if and when that happens, he and his friends will be ready to corner the thieves again, if police can’t get there first.

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