The Alberta government has announced the creation of a “Fugitive Apprehension Sheriffs Support Team” — also known as FASST.
The United Conservative government has earmarked $2 million in Budget 2023 to hire 20 new sheriffs for the team.
The province will further expand the sheriffs’ responsibilities with the goal of apprehending people with outstanding warrants before they can re-offend.
Recruiting and training will start fall 2023. FASST is expected to be fully live March 2024.
The province says that as of February 2023, there were “4,200 prolific violent offenders with outstanding warrants in Alberta.”
A news release said FASST will ensure those “accused and convicted of crimes are swiftly brought to justice.”
“The success is going to come when we start to reduce those numbers from 4,200 to obviously a lower number,” Ellis said.
The team will help local police catch high-priority offenders, the UCP government said.
“Alberta is establishing this team to take away a threat that can affect any Albertan, regardless of the community they call home,” said Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis.
“FASST will play an essential role in arresting those who hurt others and ensuring that they see their day in court.”
The new funding will mean other police resources can be used on other priorities, like ongoing criminal investigations and community policing efforts, the UCP said.
Ellis said when he was a police officer in Calgary, the priority was responding to a high volume of calls, and that hasn’t changed.
“They’ve actually increased and more and more is asked of our front-line officers each day. So we’re just trying to alleviate some of the pressures again of our folks, no matter where you are … to start to reduce some of these numbers.”
“These new resources will allow us to provide much-needed specialized supports across the province, as well as more safety and security when the people we serve need it most,” said Farooq Sheikh, chief of Alberta Sheriffs.
Sheikh said recruits for the team will receive advanced training, including in surveillance, investigations and drafting search warrants. He said the officers will also be able to make arrests.
“We’re going to ensure that all of our staff, before they’re out there actively hunting for people, they’re trained and suitably equipped to handle what comes their way.
“We can go out there and target our most serious offenders … if we can take some of these people off the street and put them through the justice (system) and keep people safe, it’s going to be a positive step.”
“This comes off as rather contrived and performative,” said Temitope Oriola, a professor of Criminology at the University of Alberta. “The new unit will not come on board until March 2024.”
By that time, he says, Alberta’s crime and safety issues could be totally different.
“I worry that this particular issue has now gone straight into political theatre rather than practical solutions to an existing issue.”
Oriola wondered if the $2 million could have been better used — on shelter beds or to bolster the existing Edmonton Police Service or Calgary Police Service, for instance.
“This is an indirect criticism of existing police services. Are we saying they don’t have the capabilities or resources to do their job?
“We don’t know yet if this new unit — when and if it comes onboard — whether it will enjoy the cooperation of the police services that are supposed to cooperate with it. The province does not have its own police service, so it would rely on the municipal police services and presumably the RCMP as well.”
Oriola described the UCP’s plan as a “half-cooked and non-digested policy measure.”
“This seems to me like a policing fetish,” he added. “It seems to be more about narrative control rather than a solution to the problem of crime.”
There are currently five types of sheriffs in Alberta: law courts/legislature/inmate transport, communications/surveillance, traffic, fish and wildlife.On March 24, Ellis announced the Alberta Sheriffs Branch would have expanded powers and play a bigger role in combating rural crime with new funding.
Ellis said $27.3 million would be invested in new positions and for rural crime initiatives, including two plain clothes teams that will help RCMP with criminal surveillance.
Lori Williams, an associate professor of Policy Studies at Mount Royal University sees this announcement as the United Conservatives trying to distinguish their public safety plan from the Opposition NDP’s.
“There’s a bit of competition between the NDP and the UCP on the issue of public safety and how best to handle it. The UCP is reinforcing or doubling down on the narrative that the solution to the problem is more officers, despite the fact that even though more sheriffs have been put in place already, we’re not seeing the kind of changes many would like to see.”
Williams said both the UCP and the NDP have come out in support of 150 new officers for both Edmonton and Calgary.
“The big difference being that the NDP is teaming them up with other personnel and resources to try to get to the roots of the problem. This new move might just be an attempt on the part of the UCP to distinguish their policies from those of the NDP and double down on the enforcement side.”
Some election issues tend to work better for one party while others work better for another party, Williams said.
“So they’re going to focus on the issues that they think are going to work best for them and persuade Albertans to vote for them.
“The problem is, of course, that it’s up to the voters what those election issues are and the number one issue, according to polling, is healthcare … The second most important issue is affordability.”
Williams says it comes down to “dueling promises” from the two main Alberta parties.
“I don’t think it’s going to be entirely clear which of these approaches is likely to succeed because we won’t see the evidence of that before the election.”
With a file from The Canadian Press