Putting in the time to prevent the rise of crime in rural Alberta

By Tim Kalinowski


While it is hard to get a bead on rural crime statistics across the province, says Cor DeWit, president of the Alberta Provincial Rural Crime Watch Association, what isn’t hard to get a bead on is farmers and rural property owners needing to step up and help themselves out by changing bad habits and thinking ahead when it comes to preventing crime.

“We have been focusing a lot as an association on CPTED principles— Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design,” explains DeWit. “That’s a program which has been running for about 100 years apparently, and it uses the principles of lighting, cameras, security systems, gates, and being able to see your home properly where it is not covered in trees, where a criminal can hide and break into your windows without you even knowing they are there. And neighbours can see your home a little bit better to see what is happening.”

DeWit says there are categories of crime which are happening across the province in rural areas most would be familiar with: break and enters, copper wire theft, fuel theft and a lot of stolen vehicles.

“It’s really back to basics,” says DeWit when it comes to prevention. “I have been one word that is prominent for everything, and that is communication. Communication with the RCMP or with your local police force if it is not RCMP. Communication amongst each other— friends, neighbours, family to keep an eye on each other if someone is going away for a vacation or whatever.

“And in farming, you are not only farming your quarter section, but you might be going 10 miles over to another section. And you are gone for the whole day. Let people know where you are going to be so your friends can keep an eye out.

“Awareness is the big thing.”

DeWit acknowledges the RCMP’s Rural Crime Reduction Units have been having an impact.

“The RCMP Rural Crime Reduction Units are starting to make some headway, and they are starting to get some good results,” he confirms. “In central Alberta where I am based, for example, they have had some breaks in the vehicle theft industry, and they have broken some rings in Red Deer where they have caught these people with some 30 or 40 vehicles in a chop shop.”

DeWit also applauds the use of new tools like publicly accessible crime mapping technologies by individual detachments and police forces to help farmers and rural property owners pick up on local upswings.

“They are starting to get some collaboration between detachments, and the crime mapping has been released by the RCMP,” DeWit acknowledges. “They can now map the current crimes in the last 14 days in a detachment area, and you can go online and see where the crimes are happening. The City of St. Albert piloted it last year, and now it has been spread over 40 detachments throughout the entire province. We are hoping it eventually spreads province-wide. About 30 or 40 per cent of square mileage in the province is currently covered under that system.”

But in more deep rural areas in the province where these technologies aren’t so readily available, he says, it still comes down to neighbours watching out for neighbours.

“Get to know your neighbours,” DeWit states. “That’s a big problem in our area here close to Edmonton. We have a lot of people moving in to take over the existing farms, basically acreage owners or those that don’t farm the land but live in the house, and they rent the land out. They don’t have this history of knowing what Fred or George drives when they drive to work; so when they see a vehicle go by they don’t know who it is. In the old days you knew everybody, but it’s not like that anymore.”

Shane Hok, president of South East Alberta Rural Crime Watch, agrees wholeheartedly with DeWit’s assessment, but, he says, it has to go deeper than that. Applying CPTED principles is one thing, watching out for neighbours is another, but it also means farmers and rural residents have to wrap their heads around this new crime reality and get rid of bad habits.

“Farmers and ranchers were the worst at leaving their keys in vehicles,” states Hok. “I still catch myself the odd time leaving them in, but they are thinking more about taking the keys out of the vehicles, which makes it harder for property theft.”

Hok relates a funny, but sadly all too true, story he has heard in his region more than once.

“We have been told what has happened in the past the RCMP would be chasing somebody in a stolen vehicle, and he just pulls into another yard and steals another vehicle— so leave that first one there and take off. And now the RCMP has to find out what type he took again; all because it was pretty easy for him to keep switching vehicles.”

Hok stresses it is never too late to do things better when it comes to crime prevention. He is encouraged in this notion by the fact four years ago South East Rural Crime Watch was nearly defunct, with less than a dozen people coming to the meetings. In recent years membership has surged to over 100 concerned residents, all keeping their eyes open for one another and working closely with police to great success. As a result South Eastern Alberta has seen an overall reduction in 2018 for the first time in three years.

“Stats are showing we are coming down in our rural crime a bit,” states Hok. “Property crime year-to-date so far compared to last year is down from 76 property crimes to 59. Talking with the RCMP here, it is partly due to the fact that have caught some (habitual) criminals, and they are now behind bars. And public awareness has really gone up … There are more eyes out there and the criminals are starting to feel that too.”

It is these great results Picture Butte and District Rural Crime Watch president Evert Van Essen says his members hope to duplicate in South Western Alberta in the coming years. The Picture Butte and District Rural Crime Watch just started up again this year  after being basically defunct for several years.

Van Essen admits a recent spike in rural crime is the motivation, and he hopes for a good turnout at the chapter’s first annual general meeting on Nov. 20.

“Absolutely we are seeing more instances of crime in our area,” Van Essen confirms. “That’s the main reason why people are interested again, because the crime has definitely increased the past few years.

“There are a lot of shop break-ins, vehicle thefts, equipment thefts, fuel thefts. Fuel being the price it is that is becoming a lucrative business. But primarily it has been farm shops broken into, with a lot of tools and things like that stolen.”

Van Essen says the RCMP think the region is being targeted by a theft ring out of Calgary because South Western Alberta has been pretty sleepy when it comes to rural crime in the past, which leads to a lot of local people getting out of the habit of being pro-active when it comes to crime. It probably makes his local region in particular pretty easy pickings for career thieves, he admits.

He gives a recent example to back up this point.

“Just recently in Nobleford a lot of vehicles were gone through,” he says. “In Turin, a little hamlet in southern Alberta, a lot of vehicles were gone through. The problem is the vehicles these thieves went through were all unlocked. One of those vehicles, I hear, actually had a gun laying on the back seat in an unlocked vehicle. In the country we were used to things like that, but we just can’t do it anymore.”

Van Essen hopes many will come out to his group’s meeting at the end of November to talk about their experiences with crime, and to maybe help share suggestions amongst each other on how individuals can do more to safeguard their own properties, and that of their neighbours.

“It’s really about changing habits as much as it is watching out for criminals,” Van Essen says.