Is rural crime actually getting worse in Alberta? What we know and what we don’t

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PHOTOS: Unlike these guys, real RCMP officers cost money to train, pay and outfit. When he promised many more of them to rural Alberta, Jason Kenney didn’t explain how he proposes to pay the freight. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons.) Below: Mr. Kenney and Postmedia political columnists Don Braid, Rick Bell and Licia Corbella.

We can say with confidence there’s a powerful perception in rural Alberta that crime is getting worse.

Postmedia’s newspapers certainly want us to think it is.

According to a columnist in the Calgary Herald, theft and vandalism on farms and ranches is “an escalating menace.” And it’s going to get worse, wrote Don Braid, “as some people, terrified for their families, turn to vigilantism.”

According to Mr. Braid’s counterpart on the other side of the room at the Calgary Sun … same deal. “Rural folks at boiling point over scumbag thieves,” says the headline over Rick Bell’s contribution to the discussion.

“We’re actually talking about thieving doped-up scumbags preying on people who obey the law, work hard, pay their taxes and are then left to fend for themselves when they become victims,” The Dinger dinged.

Mr. Bell quotes a rural elected official calling out Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for rural crime and demanding they “get off their asses” to do something about it.

Licia Corbella, another Calgary-based Postmedia columnist, also quotes an elected rural official who says, “our province and the feds, they need to step up and give law enforcement and the courts the tools to deal with these crooks.” This is a standard talking point throughout Postmedia’s recent rural crime coverage.

“The rural homeowner in all of these cases isn’t looking for trouble,” Ms. Corbella went on. “Often they are awakened from sleep in their beds, or they’re doing chores or watching television. Trouble comes to them and these law-abiding people know the nearest police officer is at least 20 minutes away … What to do?”

Ms. Corbella seems to think shooting at intruders is an appropriate response. “Obviously, homeowners shouldn’t shoot to kill thieves,” she carefully states, but should they face serious charges when they try to discourage them by discharging a firearm?”

Jason Kenney, leader of the Opposition United Conservative Party and the source and principal beneficiary of Postmedia’s colourful rural crime stories, certainly wants us to think it’s is a huge and escalating problem.

He proposes a massive, and massively expensive, increase in rural policing – which given his approach to budgets, will inevitably mean big cuts in public services, quite possibly including policing, for other citizens living outside the territory of his party’s rural base.

Mr. Kenney also says there’s escalation in the severity of rural crime. “Conventional thefts have become break and entries, break and entries have become home invasions, which have become increasingly violent,” he told Mr. Braid, who wrote it down and put it in the paper. Note that no one actually seems to keep statistics on home invasions, least of all Statistics Canada.

But is there any actual evidence for this? Any evidence, that is, other than anecdotal claims by people who may sincerely believe the problem is growing worse or who, like the Opposition leader, may see political advantage in getting people riled up against the government?

Mr. Braid provides one link in his anecdote-filled column to support his “escalating menace” claim. That story, however, includes just one statistic from the RCMP saying Alberta detachments have seen a 16-per-cent increase in Criminal Code offences over the past five years, which presumably includes drunk driving and telephone fraud.

That’s certainly a significant number, but nowhere near the UCP’s claims, approvingly quoted by Ms. Corbella, that property crimes are up more than 400 per cent over four years in one Central Alberta County.

Notwithstanding such claims, there is no hard evidence beyond anecdotes to back up the persistent belief in rural areas that drug-addled urban “scumbags” are driving out from the city commit rural crimes.

In-depth analysis by Statistics Canada of 2005 police-reported crime data that compared urban and rural crime suggested otherwise. Granted, these figures are getting old now, but no new numbers indicate anything has changed. Additional federal statistics from 2010 showed the same pattern.

Among the findings of Statscan’s detailed 2005 analysis:

  • Rural areas had the highest per capita homicide rates, and had throughout the decade before.
  • Rural areas reported lower property crime rates than urban areas.
  • Large urban areas had the lowest rates of violent crime.
  • The presence of weapons in violent crime was much more likely in rural areas and small towns than large urban areas.

Has anything changed lately?

The Saskatoon-based Western Producer, one of the few news publications in Canada that pays attention to rural issues, noted last week that statistics show rural crime rates per 100,000 people in Canada are roughly constant, although property thefts are up.

Last year, Statistics Canada reported that the police-reported crime rate in all regions of Canada was virtually unchanged in 2016 from 2015, and down 28 per cent from a decade earlier in 2006.

Significantly, in the 2005 analysis the statisticians concluded, “the proportion of total violent crimes committed by strangers was highest in the large urban areas … This finding held true for all violent offences.”

“The proportion of violent crime committed by family members was highest in rural areas,” they reported. And while their statistics for all violent crimes were biased toward Ontario and Quebec, “this finding also held true for homicide incidents at the national level.” (Emphasis added.)

The 2005 analysis also suggested that – then, at least – rural residents were more likely to invite property crime by leaving their cars and houses unlocked, failing to install new locks or take other precautions. With the exception of having a dog around, rural residents were less likely across the board to take precautions in 2005 than were city dwellers.

Recent stories about rural crime often say residents no longer behave this way. But old habits die hard, and there is no statistical evidence to prove this anecdotal claim either.

It is possible, of course, that some significant but unnoticed social change has taken place in Alberta over the past decade leading urban criminals to venture into rural areas. But there is no actual evidence to support such a belief.

You can always blame addictive drugs, but substance abuse is hardly an exclusively urban problem.

Common sense suggests that the mostly likely perpetrators in rural Alberta’s rising crime rate continue to be rural Albertans.

Rural residents deserve a reasonable level of policing, as we all do. But those who choose to live in a low-population area should understand it will take police longer to get to an emergency no matter how many more rural police officers are hired.

If conservative politicians and their media cheerleaders demand urban levels of police service for rural areas, they have an obligation to tell voters how they propose to pay for it. Hiring additional police officers out of their own tax base is obviously too expensive for some rural politicians to consider. And the cost of policing by the RCMP is likely to rise significantly soon.

Regardless, the sly dog whistles about who commits rural crime need to stop, because it’s pretty clear most rural crime originates close to home.

Categories Alberta Politics