Putting criminals in Alberta on ALERT

Alberta’s unremitting growth over the last few decades has exacerbated a variety of social ails, but few are more alarming than the rise in crime. It’s the kind of social scarring that deeply effects Albertans — and makes the provincial government’s new infusion of policing-related funding more than welcome.

Alberta’s unremitting growth over the last few decades has exacerbated a variety of social ails, but few are more alarming than the rise in crime.

It’s the kind of social scarring that deeply effects Albertans — and makes the provincial government’s new infusion of policing-related funding more than welcome.

Accomplished criminals, like all good businessmen, are opportunists. They see a chance for profit and they move with urgency and clarity. And there has been plenty of opportunity in Alberta to profit from crime. The more money an economy has, the greater the opportunities for virtually everyone, including criminals. Alberta is among the few provinces in the nation to experience growth in criminal activity in recent years.

(Never mind the contention by Edmonton’s police force, made last fall, that an already unsettling level of crime is actually worsening in current tough economic conditions.)

As criminals become more organized, aggressive, mobile and sophisticated, so too must law enforcement.

That’s the premise behind the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT). And the umbrella organization has proven itself thoroughly over the last decade. Its specialized units work to disrupt organized gangs and crack down on the most serious of criminal behaviour in our province.

At its peak, more than 300 municipal police and RCMP officers formed ALERT, but funding cuts have whittled away at that group. Provincial funding was pared by 30 per cent over the last three years of the former government, and a reserve of federal grant funds has been spent.

But the need for ALERT remains across the province, and the agency limps on.

Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat forces are all partners with the RCMP in the initiative to investigate a wide range of criminal activity, running the gamut from drugs to child exploitation.

Those communities are loathe to abandon the agency — they know its worth. So the influx of cash from the province is more than welcome.

The Alberta government’s new budget adds $2.6 million to the ALERT program this year. At the same time, the body gets some retooling to help it focus on the most serious of crimes and criminals. Off its plate will be the work of the Safe Communities and Neighbourhoods team and surveillance unit, which will now fall under the Justice and Solicitor General budget.

The moves come after the new provincial government conducted an audit of ALERT’s managerial structure last year.

The province will supply the agency with $29.1 million in total funding this year. That’s a step in the right direction. The agency, which had a budget of $38 million as recently as 2012, has left vacant jobs open over fear of a further decrease in funding.

But money for ALERT is well and broadly spent. In its second-quarter report for 2015-16, the agency says it worked with police in 43 municipalities to root out crime. That included multiple arrests and the recovery of drugs, vehicles and an arsenal of weapons; playing a role in an international initiative to arrest a child sex abuse suspect; and arresting gang members in relation to drug trafficking.

In all, 503 charges were laid as the result of ALERT work from July 1 to Sept. 30, 2015 alone. The companion statistics for the same period are chilling: $2.5 million in proceeds of crime seized; an estimated $2.9 million in drugs (including 1,877 deadly fentanyl pills) recovered; and 50 firearms found.

Issues related to crime rarely get more than broad strokes in provincial initiatives. But at the municipal level, crime rears its ugly head regularly. Municipal elections in Alberta typically focus on a handful of issues: taxes, services and crime rates. And policing costs account for about 10 per cent of the municipal budget for a city like Red Deer, or slightly more than $250 from every citizen each year.

Based on the criminal activity here and elsewhere, that’s not enough. It takes funding from other levels of government to strike at the heart of crime.

Red Deer didn’t join ALERT until 2012, well after the agency was launched. It was well past time, according to a local RCMP superintendent, who said at the time that Red Deer had become a focal point for organized crime. Even in crime, our location and transportation links make us a hub.

In the business of crime, where opportunity and means exist, so too does profit.

But we can’t clamp down on the dark side of our economic success without a variety of tools, and ALERT is chief among them.

Troy Media columnist John Stewart is a born and bred Albertan who doesn’t drill for oil, ranch or drive a pickup truck – although all of those things have played a role in his past.

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