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Residents in Fort St. John and Dawson Creek have been reporting a surge in property crime over recent months, causing some residents in Dawson Creek to form a group aimed at addressing this issue.
The group, known as “Citizens take Action,” says they’ve “lost confidence in our local RCMP detachment’s ability to address the acute rise in crime” and have reportedly been patrolling the streets at night to prevent criminal offences.
Government officials have taken notice of the situation, with Dawson Creek council and the Peace River Regional District writing letters to and meeting with Attorney General Niki Sharma and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth.
According to RCMP statistics, Fort St. John has also seen a rise in property crime over the past few months. However, the local RCMP believes this increase is simply a return to the level of offences seen before the COVID-19 pandemic.
After hearing from residents in both communities about escalating property crime, Energeticcity decided to find out if these offences truly are increasing and, if so, what’s causing this spike and what is being done to address the issue.
Through the course of our investigation, it became apparent that, indeed, property crime is up in both communities, and a small group of repeat offenders are committing a bulk of these offences.
But where do we go from here?
This month, Energeticcity Investigates speaks with local and provincial politicians and the Fort St. John RCMP detachment to discern what is being done to address the number of repeat offenders in the Peace who are part of B.C.’s unofficial “catch and release” court system.
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Table of Contents:
- Property Crime in the Energetic City
- Fort St John Total Property Crime Violations 2011-2021
- Fort St. John Total Property Crime Violations 2018-2022 (Fort St. John RCMP)
- Fort St. John Property Crime Stats by Offence 2018-2022 (FSJ RCMP)
- What’s going on in the Mile Zero City?
- Property crime in Dawson Creek: January 1st- February 28th, 2022 vs 2023
- Property crime in Dawson Creek: January 1st- October 31st, 2022 vs 2021
- Dawson Creek Total Property Crime Violations 2011-2021 (Stats Can)
- What we heard
Property Crime in the Energetic City
Inspector Anthony Hanson, commander of the Fort St. John RCMP detachment, told Energeticcity that while rates of property crime offences have been increasing in recent years, Fort St. John is far from reaching a historic high.
Fort St. John Total Property Crime Violations 2011-2021 (Stats Canada)
He stated that since about June 2022, the detachment has seen a noticeable increase in the rate of property crime after a two-and-a-half-year decrease, which he says was due to the pandemic.
Fort St. John Total Property Crime Violations 2018-2022 (Fort St. John RCMP)*
*Please note: statistics collected by Statistics Canada and the Fort St. John RCMP may differ due to differences in how the organizations arrange and present their data.
According to the most recent statistics released by the RCMP and Stats Canada, property crime offences were at their highest in 2019.
“During COVID, anecdotally, we would average about 15 files per 12-hour shift. We’re doing 25 to 30 files now, but COVID was an outlier. We are still not as busy as this detachment was ten years ago,” Hanson said.
The detachment commander hypothesized that this increase might be due to energy projects in the area ramping back up after the pandemic.
“When COVID hit, the energy industry obviously slowed down considerably, and a lot of people left the area. Now the energy industry has ramped up, especially with [the situation in] Ukraine, and people are flooding back into the area,” he said.
“Our files are up across the board, they’ve all trended upward since the spring of last year.”
Hanson says that property crime offences have generally been higher in Fort St. John in the past, adding that this may be due to the level of recreational and endemic drug use in the area and the city’s proximity to Alberta.
“There is trans-jurisdictional crime, especially property crime, that occurs here. A lot of the offenders we deal with are actually from Alberta. To be fair to Alberta, our offenders are offending over there too,” Hanson explained.
“Historically, we have had high numbers. There’s a reason that Fort St. John is generally somewhat high in the crime severity index. It is simply the crime trends in this area.”
Fort St. John Property Crime Stats by Offence 2018-2022 (Fort St. John RCMP)
Regarding the spike the detachment has seen in the past six months, Hanson says that while the local detachment has a crime reduction unit, it doesn’t have the same resources as the unit in Alberta.
“On the Alberta side, the province funds a regional crime reduction unit of several members. That’s their job, the regional and rural areas and how it intersects with urban areas, and they have great success. We do not have that.”
He says that when local investigators deal with victims of property crime, they will provide suggestions, such as installing video cameras and alarms, to help provide evidence should the victim experience additional property-related offences.
“[They suggest] ways they could look at perhaps hardening their site depending on what is being stolen and how. But the general rule of thumb is that if the criminal is savvy, experienced, and wants it badly enough, they’ll generally find a way.”
“We’ve had break and enters in the last few months where they’ve gone through walls,” he added.
Hanson adds that the detachment tends to focus on the operational side of crime prevention, which according to him, means trying to arrest prolific offenders.
“The reality is, and this is widely well known, is that a small minority of criminals create the vast majority of crime, and property crime offences are one of those areas where it’s very true.”
Hanson says the FSJ detachment recently “leveraged” a member of the General Investigations Section (GIS) unit, a member of the FSJ Crime Reduction Unit, and an investigator from Dawson Creek to try to combat some of the crime occurring in the region.
“We knew from analyzing some of the data that it seemed that the same people were committing crimes here and in Dawson, and they were driving back and forth in crime vehicles,” Hanson explained.
He added that the officers then began to work with RCMP on the Alberta side and were successful in catching two prolific offenders in January 2023, who he says are still in custody to his knowledge.
“As soon as we did that, we saw a noticeable drop in our more serious, larger break-and-enters that were taking place. Up to that point, some businesses were getting hit almost every night.”
Attorney General Niki Sharma says the province is taking action to address repeat offending.
Sharma says the provincial government has re-introduced the Repeat Offenders Initiative, which aims to bolster collaboration between different levels and departments within the justice system.
“What I hear from communities is that it’s often a small group of the same people conducting these crimes,” Sharma said.
“The repeat offender initiative will actually help to cut through the silo. You’ll have a Crown Counsel paired with a police force and a probation officer to identify who these repeat offenders are and to help plan how to respond to them and what the tools are to address that particular issue with that specific person,” she explained.
Sharma continued, stating that when the initiative was previously in place from 2008 to 2012, the province saw a 40 per cent decrease in repeat offending in the first year of the program.
What’s going on in the Mile Zero City?
It would appear that property crime offences have begun to trend downward in Dawson Creek since their peak in September 2022.
According to the most recent Dawson Creek RCMP report presented to Dawson Creek council on March 27th, theft of vehicles is down by 61.9 per cent compared to this time last year, theft from vehicles is down 63.6 per cent, and theft (including shoplifting) is also down 49.4 per cent.
Property crime in Dawson Creek: January 1st- February 28th, 2022 vs 2023
Residential break and enters are down 50 per cent, however break and enters to businesses are up 30.8 per cent.
Property crime in Dawson Creek: January 1st- October 31st, 2022 vs 2021
An October 2022 report previously presented to Dawson Creek city council stated that vehicle theft was up 54 per cent from 2021, theft from vehicles was up by 33 per cent, break and enter at local businesses was up 138 per cent, and theft (including shoplifting) was up 42 per cent.
Dawson Creek Total Property Crime Violations 2011-2021 (Stats Can)
Energeticcity reached out to the Dawson Creek RCMP numerous times over the past month and a half. Nobody from the detachment was able to make themselves available for an interview.
Doug Scott, one of the leaders of the group Citizens take Action, along with fellow Dawson Creek residents Tygh Lardner and Jason Gowda, addressed Mayor and council in November 2022 by reading a letter detailing their experiences with rising thefts and what the group had been doing to combat them.
The group then put forth several requests to council, including providing more funds to the Dawson Creek RCMP, suggesting that funds could be taken from local firefighters to fund the detachment.
Dawson Creek Mayor Darcy Dober believes that the RCMP as a whole needs more resources due in part to a challenge in recruiting new members after the pandemic.
“They’re running at a 70 percent rate because they’re struggling to get members out of COVID,” he said
Dober adds that he’s not sure why this may be, but he has a few hunches.
“With the system, repeat offenders and violent offenders, it’s not a career people want. Until that system’s changed and allows the RCMP to be a bit more efficient, it’s tough to attract people,” Dober said.
South Peace MLA Mike Bernier doesn’t believe that the Dawson Creek police lack resources and instead places the blame onto B.C.’s “catch and release” system.
“I know one of the biggest frustrations from an RCMP level is, and I’ve heard this right around the province, they do the work, catch somebody, arrest them but then they have to be released, and the court system doesn’t charge them, and if they do get charged, they get released with basically no penalties at all,” Bernier told Energeticcity.
“It seems to be the same people, just a revolving door. They commit a crime, get arrested, get released, and then go back out and commit another crime,” he stated.
Dober echoed Bernier’s comments, stating that it’s discouraging for RCMP officers to watch repeat offenders be released with little or no consequences as soon as one or two hours after being arrested.
“It’s tough for them to do their job properly. The reality is, 90 per cent of their time is dealing with those five, six, seven per cent of the population that are repeat offenders, and it’s taking away from other areas that need their assistance,” Dober said.
According to the Courts of B.C., when police believe they have enough evidence to charge someone, they will send it to Crown Counsel, who then reviews the evidence and decides if the evidence is sufficient and whether it’s in the public interest to pursue charges.
Attorney General Niki Sharma explains that this is called a crown assessment process.
“So our Crown Counsel will look at the charges and independently assess whether or not to lay charges,” she said.
B.C. is one of three jurisdictions in Canada where the police recommend criminal charges and Crown Counsel decides which charges, if any, should be laid.
Sharma told Energeticcity in response to rising crime, the Attorney General’s office issued a directive to the Crown Counsel in December 2022 with guidelines to seek incarceration of violent repeat offenders until trial, instead of releasing them on bail.
According to a September 2022 investigative report on repeat offending by Dr. Amanda Butler and Doug LePard, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a reduction in people being held for trial and a decrease in charges for significant offences and breaching bail conditions.
“This trend, already underway due to recent changes in federal legislation and case law, has left police and probation officers frustrated that the only tools they have to manage people who offend in the community have been virtually eliminated,” the report reads.
Attorney General Niki Sharma explains that the bail system in Canada is mainly federal and that it’s under the federal criminal code whether someone is let out on bail or not.
However, she added that the provincial government has been advocating for the federal government for specific changes to the criminal code to help with bail and asked the federal government for “the broadest interpretation of violence” when it comes to repeat offenders.
“So violence could be with or without a weapon. It could also be threats—we asked for the broadest definition in terms of bail reform. We’ll see what the federal government changes,” she said.
The 2022 report continues by stating that community stakeholders, such as mayors, retailers and other municipal officials, expressed frustration with increases in repeat and violent property crime.
Police and probation officers told Butler and LePard that because those who are repeatedly committing these crimes are not being held accountable, they are emboldened to continue offending, leading to a deterioration of a community’s trust in the justice system.
BC Crown Counsel told the investigators they were bound by recent legislation and case law, adding that “the lack of health and social services for accused, particularly in the northern regions, contributes to repeat cycles of offending.”
The report stated that long-term reductions in crime could be accomplished but required significant investments from the provincial government to address the “systems-level” issues that play a part in repeat offending, including systemic racism, poverty, inadequate health services, food insecurity, and unaffordable housing.
Sharma said the solution requires multiple elements, including mental health and addiction support and a bolstering of RCMP resources.
“There are many responses that need to happen to make communities safer. We heard from communities that there needs to be more action from the federal and provincial governments. Local governments are really doing what they can as well,” Sharma said.
“We need to make sure that mental health and addiction supports are up. We need to make sure that there are police resources across the province, and we are investing $230 million into that,” she explained.
It is unclear how these changes will impact us here in the Peace, especially as the Dawson Creek RCMP detachment is currently running at 70 per cent capacity, according to its most recent policing report to city council.
What we heard
Throughout the course of Energeticcity’s investigation, we heard theories from residents attributing the rise in property crime offences solely to homeless populations in Fort St. John and Dawson Creek.
Attorney General Niki Sharma told Energeticcity that there is no evidence supporting this theory.
“There are very complicated reasons for crime and people living a life of crime—it’s not tied to homelessness. I think that our response has to address all of the causes of it and the various things we can do to address it,” Sharma said.
She adds that communities across the country are experiencing rises in crime, remarking that while at a meeting in Ottawa with other provincial justice and public safety ministers, each expressed they were seeing a rise in repeat and violent offences in their communities.
“Unfortunately, a lot of communities have identified this as a challenge that they’re facing after COVID. There are probably multiple reasons and causes, but it’s a common challenge,” Sharma said.
“Ontario was reporting more gun violence in repeat offending, and Manitoba was there to talk about the use of bear spray being used in violent acts in their communities,”
Fort St. John Detachment commander Anthony Hanson said that many thefts being committed locally are professional-level crimes.
“When you’re stealing tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of industrial equipment, you need to be connected to people that you can actually sell that back to and recoup profit from,” Hanson stated.
“At a lower level, some of these smash and grabs and whatnot—that’s a different story. It could be anyone. I’m not going to go in and start to profile. Of the crimes that have been committed in the last year in the downtown core, we’ve caught a variety of individuals of different backgrounds committing them.”
In their 2022 report, Butler and LePard stated that the term “prolific offender” was once used to refer to “a relatively small and stable group of people” committing “somewhat skillful and planned repeated property crimes.”
However, the report pointed out that in recent years, the term has evolved to include street-entrenched people who are often living with significant mental health issues or may be struggling with problematic substance use.
There is a difference between these two groups, with the first group repeatedly being identified throughout the course of our investigation as the group primarily behind property crime offences in the Peace.
This is part one of the Energeticcity Investigates series Disrupting the Peace, which aims to delve further into crime being committed in our region.
This is an ongoing issue in our community, and we will continue to keep residents informed. Those who wish to share their experiences are encouraged to email [email protected]
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