A Lacombe County peace officer’s narrow escape from being run over by a fleeing suspect last October reignited the debate over whether to arm county patrols.
The incident, which fortunately left the officer with only minor injuries, prompted county councillors to discuss the issue of arming community peace officers.
“One of our councillors asked if there is anyway we could arm our peace officers to prevent things like this,” said Keith Boras, the county’s director of community services.
The county’s patrol officers have the authority to enforce almost a dozen provincial acts, including the Traffic Safety Act, Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, Animal Protection Act among others. Their primary responsibilities are traffic safety and preventing damage to county roads.
They do not enforce the Criminal Code but provide assistance to Lacombe Police Service and RCMP detachments within the county.
In the Oct. 1 incident involving the county patrol officer, he had pulled over to help two men who appeared to be trying to free a vehicle from the ditch. One fled on foot and the other took off in a vehicle, then returned and allegedly tried to hit the county officer, whose vehicle was hit and badly damaged.
A suspect is facing numerous charges, including assault with a weapon and dangerous driving.
Any move to arm peace officers or expand their duties to laying Criminal Code charges would have to come from the province, said Boras.
An Alberta Justice spokesman said on Tuesday the province is not currently not considering arming peace officers.
Boras said debate around arming peace officers seems to come up every few years. Some strongly believe it is time to arm county patrols to provide more safety while others do not believe they should take on traditional police roles. Some of those opposed are peace officers themselves.
“(County patrol officers) are trained to a different level to do a different job,” said Boras.
“They go into the job knowing that and that’s the responsibility they want to carry.”
Boras said the county has not pushed to arm peace officers previously and council’s discussion led to no moves to change that stance.
There has been talk in some communities of allowing peace officers to carry Tasers but there has been no provincial decision, he said.
Rural Municipalities of Alberta president Paul McLauchlin has seen the arming peace officer issue come up occasionally and the association has spoken to the Alberta Peace Officers Association about it in the past year.
A universally held position has not emerged over the years, he said.
“It almost seems like there’s a split between whether that’s a good idea or not,” he said.
“That’s why I think it’s just not getting the traction. It seems like some people don’t want the downloading on to our peace officers.
But at the same time there are concerns that peace officers are being put at risk by only having non-lethal weapons to defend themselves.
The duties of peace officers are not the same across the province. In some municipalities, they are used only for bylaw enforcement, where in others they handle Traffic Safety Act offences, such as speeding.
As the province looks at ways to respond to calls to tackle rural crime, McLauchlin believes it is likely peace officers’ roles and what tools they need to be safe will be part of that larger discussion.