Disrupting the Peace: A closer look at trans-jurisdictional crime in the region

We examine other RCMP trans-jurisdictional crime reduction units and how the network of property crime offenders in the Peace operates.

After Fort St. John RCMP detachment commander Inspector Anthony Hanson told Energeticcity Investigates that he’s trying to get a provincially-funded, regional crime reduction unit for the Peace, we wanted to find out more.

Hanson has said Fort St. John has historically had high levels of property crime offences for several reasons, the first being that the city straddles the Alberta border.

“There is a lot of trans-jurisdictional crime, especially property crime, that occurs here. A lot of the offenders we deal with are actually from Alberta, and to be fair to Alberta, our offenders are offending over there,” Hanson told Energeticcity.ca in March.

He said many of the offenders the detachment deals with are also offending in Dawson Creek, Prince George, Grande Prairie, and downtown Edmonton.

This network of locally-based prolific property crime offenders operating in the Peace region and across the Alberta border are responsible for a bulk of property crime offences occurring in the region, Hanson said.

The second reason, according to Hanson, is Fort St. John is an energy town with a large mobile workforce, or “shadow population,” that fluctuates with the booms and busts of industry.

“There’s basically a shadow workforce in the greater rural area at all times of thousands and thousands of people. Site C, for example, over the last year [the project] has had 4,000 people working on site. They’re not counted in the census,” Hanson said.

He added that Petronas, Shell, and other major oil and gas companies also have work camps with hundreds of workers being housed in the area.

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Fort St. John is also the only major city with a population of over 10,000 people in the entire Peace region. It is known as a “hub city,” meaning it has the most services available in the area on this side of the B.C. – Alberta border.

“Even though we’re not directly on the Highway 16 corridor, we’re still a hub. We have the most services available—governmental and social support services. No different than Prince George. Why does Prince George have its levels of crime? Because it’s the hub for all of Northern B.C., and both highways run through it,” Hanson explained.

Hanson is currently trying to get provincial funding for a regional crime reduction unit, which he said would provide a higher level of investigative services to the Peace by utilizing specialized and experienced investigators who have the time and resources to locate, track and criminally charge the mobile, prolific offenders who operate throughout the Peace region in both B.C. and Alberta.

“A regional unit would allow for investigators to move throughout the Peace region as the offenders do and take pressure off of overworked frontline officers,” Hanson said.

In the third edition of Disrupting the Peace, we examine other RCMP trans-jurisdictional crime reduction units that have already been implemented in Canada to see how they operate and if they’ve had success in curbing property crime offences in their regions.

We also take a look at how the network of property crime offenders in the Peace operates.

“The reality is, and this is widely well-known, is that a small minority of criminals create a vast majority of crime. Property offences are an area where that is very true,”

— Anthony Hanson, Fort St. John RCMP detachment commander.

Fort St. John RCMP trying to get provincially-funded, regional crime reduction unit

To address the level of crime in Fort St. John, which continues to return to pre-pandemic levels, Hanson is putting together a business case for a provincially-funded regional crime reduction unit (CRU), which he’ll submit to his superiors in mid-October.

Currently, there is a four-member ad hoc crime reduction unit Hanson assembled to manage property crime offences, which includes three constables and a corporal. Two of the constables are municipally funded officers—one from Fort St John and the other from Dawson Creek.

Hanson said a crime reduction unit in the region would help to combat the current and historically high levels of both violent crime and property crime offences seen in municipal and rural areas of the Peace.

Inspector Anthony Hanson, Fort St. John RCMP detachement commander (Spencer Hall, Energeticcity.ca)

“Rural areas currently have no dedicated, provincially-funded police resources to manage property crime and violent crime beyond frontline responders,” Hanson explained.

“This means that municipal resources are used in rural areas and that there are not enough of them,” he continued.

He added that while the CRU, which the RCMP’s North District office would manage, wouldn’t add to the Fort St. John or Dawson Creek detachment’s resources, it would benefit both communities by taking some of the workload currently being handled by municipal RCMP members.

“A regional unit would allow for investigators to move throughout the Peace region as the offenders do and take pressure off of overworked frontline officers,” Hanson said.

“The work they would do would greatly benefit both cities and the detachments by dramatically increasing proactive policing resources for rural and trans-jurisdictional investigations and reducing that workload for the detachments,” he continued.

The cost of the unit is still being totalled, but Hanson said the price tag would include the full-time salary for six officers and a crime analyst, as well as operational funding for vehicles and equipment.

He clarified that if he’s successful in getting the funding, the money would come from RCMP’s provincial budget, not the detachment’s municipal budget.

The detachment plans to house some officers in the unit in Dawson Creek while other members will be stationed in Fort St. John.

“[This is] because their mandate would be our whole area, so they’ll be travelling a lot,” Hanson explained.

He said he’s closely modelling the potential unit after another crime reduction unit brought into the Caribou-Chilcotin region back in 2017, which, according to Hanson, was primarily launched to address Indigenous gang violence occurring in Williams Lake, but also conducts many higher-level property crime investigations.

According to an article from the Williams Lake Tribune, in the first two years after its launch, the Caribou-Chilcotin crime reduction unit finished 330 investigations—16 of those being prolific offender investigations—and recommended 218 charges to the BC Crown Prosecution Service.

Hanson is also modelling the unit after the eight-person Western Alberta Crime Reduction Unit that Cpl. John Learn is a part of, which includes a sergeant, a corporal, and six constables.

Learn said on an average day, members of the unit begin with a briefing to discuss the day before starting on whatever officers feel would be best for the case they’re working on.

“As soon as we are ready to go, we hit the ground running, working on the project throughout the day. At the end of the day, we have a debrief and discuss what we’ve learned throughout the day and what we need to do to progress the project,” Learn said.

He added that members of the WAD CRU travel frequently and spend a lot of time on the road because detachments in the western Alberta district are so spread out from each other.

Learn said the CRU has and utilizes many technologies it has at its disposal to locate repeat offenders.

“I’m not going to speak to them, obviously, because I don’t want to divulge what we do. But, we have a lot of avenues that we can go to locate these individuals,” Learn stated.

“Information and intelligence are key, so communication needs to be there. If we have someone that we believe will be going across the border, then we spend more time discussing it with our partners in B.C.,”

Cpl. John Learn, Western Alberta District Crime Reduction Unit.

RCMP work together to apprehend offenders who “don’t see a border”

On occasion, the Fort St. John and Dawson Creek RCMP detachment work with Western Alberta’s Crime Reduction Unit (WAD CRU) to apprehend regional offenders. The unit was launched in 2018 to address rural property crime levels.

In a 2018 article, Statistics Canada told CBC News that in 2017, Alberta’s rural crime rate was 38 per cent higher than its urban crime rate, mainly due to its high rates of rural property crime offences.

This, along with a crime severity index that increased for four consecutive years, prompted Alberta’s provincial government at the time to collaborate with RCMP and create a seven-part rural crime reduction strategy, which included the launch of crime reduction units aimed at arresting repeat offenders.

Cpl. John Learn with the WAD CRU has been with the unit since it was launched. He said it’s important to maintain relationships with nearby detachments.

“We have a great relationship with detachments on the other side of [the provincial border] because we understand that the offenders don’t see a border,” Learn told Energeticcity.ca

Hanson said the detachments usually communicate through email and telephone, adding that if the Fort St. John detachment were to get a full-time crime reduction unit, they would have a more “regularized” method of communication.

A walk-through of a typical property crime investigation

Hanson used an example of a break-and-enter report to explain the steps RCMP takes to investigate property crime offences. He said if an offence is in progress, officers attend the scene immediately and try to locate the offender.

If mounties can’t locate the offender and secure the scene. Depending on the level of crime, they will call in the forensic identification section to process the scene and collect evidence.

“Did [the offender] cut themselves when they broke through the door or window? Is there blood? Are there tool marks or footprints? Is there any video surveillance? Or did the neighbours have it? Is there a business in the area? ” Hanson said.

If officers have to send samples to a lab, like a blood sample for DNA analysis, Hanson said it takes at least nine months to get a response, adding that there is a “huge” national backlog for many police services and lab results.

If fingerprints are found, officers then have to collect elimination prints from people who have regular access to the location. If the prints don’t match, they’re then run through a national database to try to get a match.

“If somebody has their prints, we’ll get a hit, which ties into it, and then we can move the investigation forward. We don’t get a hit. And that’s it,” Hanson said.

“Having a fingerprint at the scene is not the slam dunk that people might think it is or television presents it is. It’s one piece of a preponderance of evidence we have to provide to the Crown for them to make a decision to charge,” he explained.

Another piece of a property crime investigation is video canvassing. Officers will collect video surveillance footage from five square blocks, which Hanson said takes time.

“It’s not simply the investigator going to get the video. Somebody has to go through all that video to try to find a suspect’s vehicle, people who don’t fit the area, whatever we’re looking for,” Hanson explained.

“If we collect video from eight different locations that each are eight hours of video each, now we have 64 hours of video somebody has to go through. We don’t have a civilian tech to do that here, so it’s the police officer having to do it, which means they’re not investigating anything else, and they’re not on the road,” Hanson said.

“What we’re seeing is generally industrial equipment that can be broken down and sold, or vehicles—primarily pickup trucks—being stolen, often to be used as crime vehicles,”

— Anthony Hanson, Fort St. John RCMP detachment commander.

What’s typically being taken, and what do offenders do with stolen items?

When it comes to items that are being stolen, Hanson said thieves in the Peace tend to go for objects that can be easily stripped down so they can sell their components.

“When they break into an industrial site, and they steal copper wire or mechanical pieces that have certain types of metals in them—usually copper, aluminum, other metals—that can be sold and are hard to trace,” Hanson said.

B.C. has a Metal Dealers and Recyclers Act aimed at preventing crime that requires metal dealers and recyclers to keep records of sellers and the metal they provide. These businesses must also report the purchase to police on the day of the sale, and if the report matches the description of stolen property, police may open an investigation.

The act also states that dealers and recyclers are not allowed to purchase metal wire that looks like the insulation was removed.

Hanson said that once the covering is removed from metal wire, specifically copper, it can be difficult for a business owner to determine where the metal came from.

“It’s also legally difficult to prove, in some cases, that [the business] should have known what it was, depending on the volume that’s brought to them,” Hanson explained.

He said his property crime reduction unit he put together—consisting of RCMP officers from Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, and Alberta—conducts surveillance on the one scrap metal recycler in the area, but that doesn’t stop offenders from travelling to Grande Prairie to use their scrap metal recycling facilities.

Alberta has similar legislation to B.C., known as the Scrap Metal Dealers and Recyclers Identification Act, that also makes it so scrap metal businesses have to obtain proof of ID and keep a record of purchases for at least two years. They also must share that information with law enforcement.

Older pickup trucks are also frequently stolen in the Peace region. Hanson said perpetrators prefer these vehicles because they’re easier to steal.

“They don’t have the same level of anti-theft devices in them because the thieves here aren’t like the sophisticated car thieves you generally have back east who are using electronics to bypass the new computer systems in cars,” Hanson stated.

According to the detachment commander, car thieves in the Peace tend to favour an “old school” approach—using brute force to gain entry before then ripping off the steering wheel column to hotwire the vehicle.

Once the offender has stolen the vehicle, both Hanson and Learn said they’re often used as crime vehicles—meaning offenders use them to travel and commit other offences.

“What we end up finding is a vehicle will be stolen out of Fort St. John, it’s recovered after being dumped behind a house in Dawson Creek, or vice versa, or in Grande Prairie,” Hanson stated.

Learn said if the stolen vehicle isn’t used as a crime vehicle, then it’s usually resold.

When asked if buyers typically know that they’re purchasing stolen items, Learn said a majority of people would know that there is something wrong with the transaction at the time of purchase.

“I think to a reasonable person, they would know what a reasonable price is for something. They say some things are too good to be true, and I believe in that,” Learn said

“I believe that if you are getting a $100,000 vehicle for $1,500, you got to know that there’s something wrong there.”

He added that depending on the stolen item, thieves use a variety of platforms to sell stolen goods, including Kijiji and Facebook Marketplace.

What we heard during the course of our investigation

In part three of Disrupting the Peace, we delved into the property crime occurring in our region. We heard the offences in the Peace are somewhat locally-based and much smaller than the international crime networks operating in other parts of the country.

We also looked into regional crime reduction units nearby and found out how they’re structured and how they operate. We learned that other crime reduction units, such as the one in the Caribou-Chilcotin area, have successfully addressed property crime and even caught prolific perpetrators.

Hanson told Energeticcity.ca that he’s compiling a business case to get a provincially funded crime reduction unit for our region to help alleviate the workload municipally-funded RCMP members are currently dealing with.

We heard that the Fort St. John RCMP have to prioritize their resources during property crime investigations, allocating more resources to forceful break-ins where there is more damage done or significant losses.

To learn more about property crime in the Peace, read parts one and two of our ongoing series, Disrupting the Peace.




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