On a cold January morning this year, RCMP were called to a school bus collision just south of Red Deer.
Blackfalds RCMP and Red Deer County peace officers raced to the scene, where a man had crashed a stolen truck into a school bus.
Then, at gunpoint, he stole the car of a woman who had stopped to help.
Police officers had an inkling of what they were getting into through their car radios. However, the county peace officers were not connected to the encrypted communication channel and had no idea the incident involved a carjacking and that a gun was involved.
In that situation, there was a “big risk” peace officers could find themselves in harm’s way, said Mark Sproule, Lacombe County’s manager of community peace officer services.
In another incident last July 31, a Lacombe County peace officer was deploying his radar gun on Highway 815, near Joffre.
He had no idea that a Ford Mustang that had evaded RCMP officers responding to a shots-fired call was barrelling toward him.
Fortunately, the peace officer had moved away from his post briefly, just before the Mustang was involved in a rollover nearby.
Not having access to the RCMP’s encrypted communication channels is putting county peace officers in harm’s way and needs to be changed, Sproule told county council.
Sproule went before council on Thursday, urging it to back a Foothills County resolution through the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, calling on the province and RCMP to allow peace officers to monitor and transmit on the RCMP’s encrypted channels.
It’s not only about community peace officer safety, it’s about helping the RCMP do their jobs better, especially in the vast rural areas, says Foothills County in its resolution.
“CPOs are often the eyes and ears out there. If CPOs are not aware of what is going on with RCMP, they won’t know to be on the lookout for suspects and vehicles as they drive around, and won’t be able to pass along key information to the police about what they see.”
The situation has emerged despite provincial efforts to improve communications among first responders. The Alberta First Responder Radio Communications System was specifically designed to allow municipal provincial and First Nations emergency personnel to communicate with each other.
“However, the opposite is happening,” says Foothills County, pointing out that not only is the RCMP encryption causing problems, but Alberta Health Services has excluded fire departments from its system.
The situation is worse than before the Alberta First Responder Radio Communications System “because encryption of radio channels has completely separated agencies from functioning as teams to respond.”
RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Laurel Scott said the RCMP is aware of and is reviewing the concerns of other law enforcement agencies in the province.
“The RCMP is engaged in working on solutions to this situation.”
Scott said “restricted access to the encrypted communication channel is due to privacy policies in relation to information on the Canadian Police Information Centre.”
Regional non-encrypted talk groups have been created as part of the radio communications system, she added.
Sproule said community peace officers are often left in the dark about what the RCMP are doing.
On the morning he was to speak to council, his officers found out through a rural crime watch call-out that a man had been spotted pointing a firearm out of a vehicle in the Sylvan Lake area. The call-out message even included a photo of the vehicle involved.
Peace officers had not received any word from local RCMP detachments that they were looking for an armed man in the area.
“Right now, we get more information from our rural crime watch fan-outs than we do from the RCMP,” he said. “To me, that’s terrible.”
Council agreed to second Foothills County’s resolution urging changes be made.