By Heather Cameron
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
In February 2023, an online survey sponsored by the University of Lethbridge’s Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy and the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) was conducted to see how people felt about the idea of an Alberta police force.
According to Paul McLaughlin, president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta and Reeve of Ponoka County, the survey is similar to one that was done by pollster Janet Brown of Calgary for Alberta Municipalities in late January 2023. McLaughlin notes, however, that the February survey is more centered on the opinions of rural, remote folks while Brown’s survey was for all of Alberta.
Both polls are clear about one thing, though, McLaughlin states – an Alberta police force is not supported.
“Eighty-five percent of the respondents in the survey that was undertaken by Janet Brown basically decided that they actually disagreed that the provincial government should go ahead with the provincial police force,” McLaughlin said. “And actually even more specific, they said that it should be put to a referendum first as well. On our survey, 79 per cent actually said it should be a ballot question. In the absence of it being on a ballot, though, 85 per cent disagreed with there being a provincial police force.”
McLaughlin said that those who participated in the February 2023 poll also emphasized that efforts and finances that would go into forming a police force would be better spent actually looking at the root causes of crime.
“We had people want to look at wraparound services and actually start to supply more resources to police,” McLaughlin said. “And really, what our polling came up with is what we’re also hearing in other polling is that judicial reform, looking at the role of the courts and, quite specifically dealing with addictions, poverty, and those whole wraparound services, including mental health; that’s what we’re hearing not only from officers, but also from communities.”
McLaughlin said that he and the rest of the rural municipalities have repeatedly said to both government and the media that the Alberta government should stay with the RCMP and look for ways to strengthen and support the force.
“More energy should be put into addressing issues including judicial reform and mental health addictions, as that is a better use of resources,” McLaughlin said. “But the current Premier has put it into Minister Ellis’s and Minister Shandro’s mandate letters for their ministries to move forward on the Alberta Provincial Police Force. We do not know who’s asking for this. It’s not our urban friends, it’s not our rural friends. We do not know who’s asking for the Alberta Provincial Police Force.”
McLaughlin confirms that the rural municipalities have already seen a lot of pieces moving on this issue as the government has already hired sheriffs. The Rural Municipalities of Alberta, McLaughlin says, was supposed to have a meeting with the provincial government earlier in the year about the provincial police force due to the essential nature of the service, but the meeting never took place.
“Even though we disagree completely with the provincial government, there’s no way we wouldn’t participate and do the best we can to make the province successful if they were to form an Alberta provincial police force because this is just so essential to our community,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughin states, however, that actually creating an Alberta Police Service would be tremendously expensive. McLaughlin estimates that creating such a force would be close to an estimate of $1.6 billion due to the fact that the government would need to buy many things including stations, vehicles, forensics, labs, and communications services. It’s something that becomes extremely expensive really fast, McLaughlin says. McLaughlin stated that the City of Surrey in British Columbia was working on forming their own police force, and they are currently trying to revert back to the RCMP due to astronomical costs associated with a municipal police force.
“I guess the question is: is this the best thing to do?” McLaughlin said. “Trying to put money into the unknowns and not really address the issues related to crime? And creating your own police force isn’t addressing crime; it’s creating your own police force. Those two aren’t connected. So we continue to bang our head against the wall trying to look for why this path has been chosen, and we’re frustrated by the path that’s been chosen. Our hope is that we’ll start having those great discussions that we should have about making our community safer and deal with the things that will make our community safer.”
The reality, McLaughlin says, is many people are generally not attracted to policing as a career and starting a police force would be tough depending on whether or not members could be recruited.
“This is a North American issue and actually an international issue,” McLaughin states. “People are not attracted to policing for multiple reasons these days. In Regina, they’ve had a tough time filling recruitment. The cities of Calgary and Edmonton have had a tough time filling recruitment. I believe the City of Victoria has their own police force and I think they created a $20,000 signing bonus and have still not been able to attract officers. Where we’ve seen the biggest issues is that there’s a really significant lack of trust in the criminal court system. As many as 75 per cent of people, I believe, say the criminal courts are too lenient and that the justice system definitely needs a lot of help.”
McLaughlin says that he has personally communicated with RCMP officers across the province and has learned of numerous occasions of someone being caught committing a crime in the morning and being released later that day, only to commit another crime later on. That happens often, McLaughlin says, because the judicial system is crippled and the ability to hold offenders is nonexistent.
“I think that the biggest conversation is that we need to provide the courts and provide the RCMP with the level of support needed to say, ‘Hey, you know, we need to help these people if they can be helped’,” McLaughlin said. “We need to make sure that we’re putting our resources into preventing this recidivism rate, which is one of the biggest concerns. I think it’s repeat offenders. We’re not talking about one-offs. We’re literally talking about people that seriously have a life of crime that are just continuing to be the source of crime in a lot of our communities.”
McLaughlin states that the conversations about policing are always evolving, but one of the conversations a lot of folks are having is that they support the RCMP. Another conversation, however, is regarding the increase in crime. McLaughlin says that although 75 per cent of residents believe they are safe in their communities, 50 per cent of residents also believe that crime is increasing in their communities.
“There’s really a need to keep continuing to work with RCMP to make policing better,” McLaughlin said. “The Government of Alberta is going through this exercise of our eventual police force, has touched on some really important pieces on making connections with Alberta Health and Addictions related to crime because everything’s treated separately. We have all these different parts and they’re not connecting. And I think through the review of Alberta provincial police, the provincial government’s done a really good job of saying, ‘Hey, you know, we need to connect these pieces.’ We need to continue on that path and really address what this survey is telling us.”
McLaughlin says that if the majority of Alberta municipalities are seeing an increase in crime and wanting action, he hopes that the province decides to work together with the RCMP to help Albertans feel safer.
“That’s where we should spend our energy and that’s where we should spend our time,” McLaughlin said. “And our survey says that the majority of rural Albertans aren’t asking for an Alberta provincial police force. So, we keep asking the question, ‘Who’s asking for this?’ And we keep trying to get answers.”