Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer recently unveiled a rural crime plan after a series of over 20 town halls throughout the province.
The main takeaway for the minister was that many Albertan are facing serious mental health issues over rural crime issues and everything his government announced was designed to be a swift response to those issues.
“The announcements were driven to make immediate, concrete steps,” Schweitzer said during a phone interview with the Lacombe Express.
Included in the UCP’s plan is a change to property rights which will make it so trespassers would be unable to file civil suits against property owners.
Schweitzer said this decision was in response to town hall feedback which consistently brought up the case of Eddie Maurice, who was sued by a trespasser he shot on his property.
“Someone trespassed on his property to commit a crime and they were able to sue him civilly. He wasn’t convicted of anything and is a law-abiding Albertan. That raises alarm bells to everyone I spoke to and they can see themselves in a similar situation,” Schweitzer said.
He added this is a common-sense amendment and will be the first of it’s kind in Canada.
Expanded powers for peace officers
Schweitzer said the UCP is giving more powers to sheriffs, fish and wildlife officer and other peace officers throughout Alberta.
Schweitzer said these powers will help local law enforcement respond to issues.
“All these peace officers are across our rural communities and help with law enforcement. We want to enhance their powers to support police. They will be able to respond to 9-1-1 calls. It is about getting more boots on the ground and this is a tangible step we can take to get that done in 2020,” he said.
Schweitzer said his ministry is still in discussion with municipalities on how police forces are being funded and no decisions have been made.
Further discussion will take place at the Rural Municipalities Association Conference in Edmonton.
“We are dedicated to maintain and increase our funding model through the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team (ALERT). Municipalities are at the table and want to see that money go towards law enforcement,” he said.
Schweitzer said his government is making tough decisions regarding the budget but maintaining front line services for policing will remain a priority.
“Maintaining front line services for police is paramount. We have invested in additional prosecutors and that is critical to manage our case-loads in our courts,” he said
Schweitzer admitted that being an urban-Calgary MLA led to him not knowing the full extend of copper-wire theft happening in rural communities.
After hearing about the issue extensively, he said his government will look to de-monetize the trade of scrap metal
“We made the announcement regarding scrapyard dealer regulations. One of the things we want to do is cut off the ability to monetize those goods,” he said.
Drug treatment courts
Although further down the line, Schweitzer said an expansion of drug treatment courts, which are currently in Calgary and Edmonton, could help alleviate rural crime in the future.
Schweitzer said they have committed $20 million over four years towards the expansion.
“The first step was doubling the capacity of Calgary and Edmonton. The next step is going to be an expansion to our mid-sized centers, so Red Deer, Lethbridge, Grand Prairie and communities like that,” he said
Schweitzer said the backlog of cases before the courts will be helped by the digitization of an aging court system.
“Right now, you wouldn’t believe how old the system we run our courts off of it. It is paper driven. We are doing an overhaul of the system to keep up,” he said.
Relationship with municipalities
Schweitzer was recently involved with a publicized tiff with Mayor Naheed Nenshi regarding police funding.
Despite the disagreement, Schweitzer said he remains committed to having positive relationships with Albertan municipalities.
“I have been encouraged by the dialogue we are having. I am looking forward to the discussions we will have at the Rural Municipality Association Convention. I think we are getting closer to a new relationship on policing and hopefully we will get to that,” he said
“I want to ensure rural municipalities have a real voice in the way policing is happening in their communities. Historically that has been dictated by Edmonton and Ottawa. Policing is at it’s best when there is local accountability and I am hopeful we will have a new arrangement going forward.”
Schweitzer said it is his intent to keep listening to Alberta and will measure the success of his government’s policies by having more town halls in 2020.
“We want to see the steps we are taking is having the impact we are hoping they will. That doesn’t mean we want people to stop sending in ideas. These ideas are a beginning and they came from town halls but we are not done,” he said.
“We won’t stop until people feel safe again in our communities.”