Words like troubling and disturbing are used by Lacombe Police Chief Steve Murray when describing the surge in crimes in his community.
In the last two years, crime has jumped by 20 per cent — to just under 7,000 calls in 2015 — almost the same increase measured over the preceding six years, when crime grew by 24 per cent. Not only is there more crime, the types of crime show a callousness and disregard by criminals for police and their victims, said Murray.
His 17 officers have responded and investigated a murder, aggravated assault and violent home invasion in the last six months of last year alone. While maybe not uncommon in larger centres, these kinds of crimes were a rarity in Lacombe.
Four Lacombe police cruisers have been rammed, and one officer on foot struck, by suspects fleeing in stolen vehicles, a testament to the threats police are facing.
Statistics released by police on Tuesday show crime has jumped in every category, in many cases significantly, compared with a year earlier
Assaults jumped to 28 last year from 11 in 2014. Firearm offences more than doubled to 11 from five, and 52 drug trafficking offences were investgated, up from 29 a year earlier.
There was a time when residential break-ins were unknown in Lacombe. Last year, 74 break-ins —both residential and business — were reported, up from 44 in 2014.
Murray said the escalating crime trend was clear by mid-year last year, although he stresses the small city remains a safe community.
As the ripples of the oilpatch slump reached Central Alberta, a gradual increase in crime followed “and then it really ramped up.”
He points to residential break-ins. “We could, literally, go a year or two without having a single residential break-in,” he said.
“Now we see the thefts, the break-ins, it’s the frauds, it’s the bad cheques — all the stuff that comes with people trying to flip some quick cash.”
With layoffs, dwindling shift callbacks and other economic stress came the robberies and assaults and crimes against persons, as they are known in police statistics. Increases in those types of crimes were already being seen in Sylvan Lake and Red Deer.
“We knew it was bound to hit us, but the stuff we saw in the last couple of months of ‘15 is really nothing short of shocking for us.”
Adding to the problem is an escape-at-all-costs mentality among criminals that has seen cruisers rammed and an officer almost run down.
“It’s an absolute callousness and such a disregard; it’s troubling, it’s disturbing.”
Given these unwelcome trends, the obvious question is what can police do about it.
Murray said he is reviewing Lacombe Police Service’s business plan to see how best to deal with the changing nature and number of offences, and the often more complex and time-consuming investigations they require.
Making sure he has the resources to respond to calls quickly, make arrests and complete investigations remains Murray’s first priority. To that end, Lacombe Police Service will be taking over its own dispatch beginning next year, a change that is expected to cut police response times in half.
But he sees that as only part of the best community response.
Crime is often a symptom of economic stress, as well as shortcomings in support available to deal with mental health, addiction and troubled youth issues among others.
He wants to see greater co-operation with social service and child welfare agencies, the probation office and other groups. Jail cells are not where people with addictions or mental health issues should end up, he added.
“You can’t just look at disturbing crime trends in isolation. You’ve got to be prepared to look at the big picture.”
That multi-pronged approach has been embraced by the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police, which has lobbied the province to bolster community resources.
Murray said when the new police station was designed for Lacombe, which is due to open in October, room was included for other agencies at specific police request.
“It just makes sense to me that we would actually be a team based out of the same place and focused on the same results.”
The last thing that Murray wants to see is a community that has become fearful of its streets.
“That just strikes to the core. That’s a fear that’s really hard to manage.”