Policing Farm Crime

By Becky Dumais

Prairie producers are routinely at the mercy of the elements; drought and disease prevail at will. They’re also not immune to being victims of crime. The headlines that frequent the news – and the variances in types of incidents – illustrate that thieves are not discerning, just desperate.

Breaking and entering, hay theft, stolen tractors, animals – even maple syrup and lobster … theft reaches producers from agriculture to aquaculture. It’s garnered enough attention to warrant a TV series on CBC.

Farmers are frustrated. Although we’ll never see a crime-free society in our lifetime, there are ways producers, the community and authorities can collaborate to reduce rural crime. Myles Taylor, a producer with acreage in northern Saskatchewan, has been a victim of crime. Twice.

“Two years ago, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) was called regarding parts removed from a grain truck in a fenced area next to our house along the equipment line. The officer could not find our place, he visited four neighbours first before arriving. Known people were seen at the truck. Nothing was done. The attitude was, call your insurance. Parts are unavailable for this unit,” he wrote to Better Farming.

“Second incident. I have acreage in a quiet rural area. Last October, people visited the acreage. The house was stripped. The house was built (from) 2014 onwards. Windows from the frames, kitchen cupboards, doors, electrical panel, mounted electric heaters, furniture, antiques ... “

The police were called, no pictures taken, no neighbours visited, even though they saw a vehicle and tracks. One neighbour is the councillor and is a part of the crime watch. No call was made.

“I found out who committed the event. I had a witness. They did not bother to contact this individual. I even offered to bring him in for them to talk to. I got all the negatives as to why I can not do this. I was then given a running inventory as to what I could not do. There was nothing I could do to get my items back. Over $90,000 to bring back to its former state. My bill.

“The police did absolutely nothing except make excuses. The criminal has more rights than I do. I cannot protect my property.

“Why have crime rates increased dramatically? The criminal knows nothing will be done. They have free reign and know it. Even if caught, the sentence is a slap on the wrist.

“I am a senior with a fixed income.

“I feel violated, frustrated, angry and ticked right off.”

Producers should voice their concern accordingly. It could be in their favour to go one step further. Sergeant Paul Manaigre, RCMP media relations officer suggests “to contact the detachment commander in the area he resides in and to request an update on the status of his investigation and to provide the information that he has.

“It’s easy to say who did it, but proving it is another story, but an effort should be made to conduct a proper investigation,” he adds. He further advises that if nothing has been resolved or if victims feel that a proper investigation wasn’t completed, a complaint can be filed.

When criminals are arrested, what happens in the courtroom is out of police control.

“The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) continues to investigate and lay appropriate charges where necessary but what happens during the court process is beyond our control,” says Perth County OPP constable Jill Johnson. “The penalties that are given when someone is found guilty are out of our control and the deterrent to commit these crimes may not (be serious enough). But that’s a frustration for us too,” she explains.

The tie-in between crime and substance abuse, or mental health issues, Johnson says, is not something everyone understands or takes into consideration. However, mental health and addiction and what resources are – or aren’t – available is another subject entirely.

“When we have a number of people in the community who are struggling with substance abuse and are supporting their habit; they resort to stealing – stealing vehicles and committing break and enters so they can get money,” she says.

“It’s a big cycle. The more people we have in our communities who are living with substance addiction the more crime we’re going to see. It’s not your average citizen who’s committing these crimes. Most of them are related to drugs.”

Stolen vehicles are a common occurrence where Johnson patrols. They’re easily lifted because she says the keys are often left inside. “When you’re looking at, say, harvest times where we have trucks parked on the side of the road and the combines are in the fields, it’s an easy target. They’ll have one person drop them off, and off they go.”

Constable Driving Police Car
    Big Cedar Films photo

This then becomes a draw on police resources. When a vehicle is stolen, unless there’s a witness and they can point officers in the direction the vehicle went, “lots of officers will respond to that (call) because we want to stop this from happening and catch them,” says Johnson. “Not only does it take up a number of officers’ time at the time of the call when we go and try to locate the vehicle,” but so do the steps required following the incident: taking statements from the victim, canvassing neighbours (which might include taking surveillance footage), taking photos, investigating the scene for evidence and finally, making an official report back at the station.

“All because the keys were left in it. I get that it’s convenient for people to leave (vehicles) unlocked, but it causes a huge danger,” she explains, adding that they could then go on to steal from a gas station or from the fuel tanks on another farm – or commit a break and enter nearby.

“It’s never an easy experience to go through. In no way am I saying the victims are to blame, but there are steps we can all take to prevent them. That’s the message we want to get out. If everybody can do as much as they can to try and prevent it then we’ll hopefully see a decrease. I think it’s a much bigger problem than that,” says Johnson, referring to the connection between crime, substance addiction and mental health.

Officers concur that tips from the public are immensely helpful. “Absolutely,” she says. “We can’t be everywhere and the more that people have to report (the better). It’s a huge assistance to us after the fact. It’s not going to prevent something from happening, but it can help us investigate and maybe solve something.”

Additional elements on-farm can also help, including alarms, motion-sensor lights and large guard dogs are things she says work as methods to help prevent crime.

Difficulties will arise in the remoteness of where a crime occurred, says Manaigre, which is compounded by lack of witnesses, a lack of information, which makes a case difficult to solve. “We need the information from people. We’re just a couple officers in an office,” he says.

“People talk in various communities,” which can help solve crimes; it could be as simple as someone overhearing cattle were missing from one town, and a week later someone comments on a suspicious truck picking up cattle elsewhere. “If that gets filtered through to us, a lot of times you can have some success. It doesn’t matter what it is, (if) you think it might be useful, we’ll take it.”

The seriousness of rural crime caught the attention of Geoff Morrison, executive producer of CBC’s true crime documentary series, Farm Crime. “It was something I’d been ruminating on for a while, having noticed stories of farming and agricultural crimes in the news,” he explains.

The first story he noticed was a maple syrup heist in Quebec. “I thought it was so incredulous that people had crafted this idea and that thought they could get away with it. And an ag product like maple syrup could be stolen and trafficked at that scale: $14 to $16 million.”

He also noticed how incidents were being reported. Mainstream media (community newspapers or trade publications excepted) coverage was often lighthearted or “littered with puns and lacked seriousness.” Producers’ stories deserved “a documentary spotlight and look at them through a more serious lens.”

All the crimes covered in the show’s two seasons were motivated for financial gain, regardless of what was stolen, Morrison notes. “I’d say the other trend I’ve noticed in a few of the cases is people taking investigations into their own hands for one reason or another. Not getting enough help, law enforcement maybe not having enough resources to devote to, but a lot of people going on to social media and using that as a tool to try and either track down their missing goods or animals and trying to solicit help from various communities.”

Again, tip reporting is essential.

Rural Road with Hidden Police Car
    Remote incidents and lack of witnesses make a case difficult. Sending in tips can make all the difference. - Carol Hamilton/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

Rural Crime Watch Alberta has a link to the purchase of trace pens on its website. The pen is used to mark items with an identifiable mark that contains a code. If the RCMP recovers stolen property, it can be scanned and the owner identified, provided they’ve registered their pen.

Police and community programs in existence also aim to reduce crime, outlined on RCMP and OPP websites respectively.

In northern Manitoba, Manaigre says Crime Reduction Enforcement Support Team (CREST) has “been very positive for us. (CREST is) able to focus and resolve crime trends for a particular district and that usually leads to positive results.”

Gate locked with chains
    Police advise that keeping gates locked and installing alarms, motion sensors, and proper lighting can help deter thieves. -Judy Darby/Stock/Getty Images Plus photo

According to an op-ed press release from the National Police Federation, published on Aug. 10, 2021, programs are helping. “In fact, through Project Lock Up, an RCMP-led anti-rural crime program launched in 2019, RCMP community engagement and outreach specialists work directly with crime victims to deter future crimes,” says the release. “And it’s successful: at the end of 2020, repeated property crimes decreased by over 55 per cent, break and enters are down by 17 per cent, and motor vehicle thefts are down by almost 20 per cent. Overall, in actual numbers, Project Lock Up has resulted in 14,230 fewer property crime offenses and 21,285 fewer total Criminal Code offenses in rural areas in 2020.”

Alberta also has two dedicated officers under its RCMP Livestock Investigation Unit. “They investigate livestock-related crimes and certainly with the stories we’ve covered, and some of the ones I’ve discussed with the livestock investigators, they’ve had some success in tracking down arresting and prosecuting people involved in livestock thefts,” says Morrison.

Victims are reluctant to report crime.

“I think that’s probably true for a lot of people, for a few reasons,” says Johnson. “The biggest reason being they don’t want to bother us; they don’t want to take up our time because maybe it’s minor. The OPP now has online citizen self-reporting. The more that people do report the more we know what crimes are happening in what areas, what type of crimes – what education do we need to do more of, what prevention methods can we use,” she says. “It is important that these crimes get reported and I hope that people don’t feel they’re wasting our time. But I have heard that from people: ‘oh they’re never going to catch them anyway’ but (reporting) helps justify having more officers in that area or patrolling that area.”

Manaigre agrees. “I would say there is (reluctance). “But, again for us, it’s the information (tips).”

Johnson also mentions Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, which examines property and how it might set the homeowner up for being a victim of crime. Factors include lighting, obstructions that might help hide someone accessing the property or block the view of the road, window locks, etc. “Our OPP auxiliary members are specially trained (in the SafeGuard Ontario Property Security Program) and it’s a free service that someone can call and set up an appointment.” An auxiliary officer will come to a home or business and look at how to make the property safer.

Being cognizant of what you have on your property and monitoring it from time to time can also help, Manaigre says. He also advises taking photos of equipment, putting up surveillance cameras or even devices that can alert your phone if someone enters the property or driveway. “Knowing your neighbours and understanding what their operations are. Keeping an eye out on each other.”

Any victim of crime is going to be impacted by what they’ve experienced. Producers have shared the other side of crime with Morrison. “There’s ultimately a financial cost to any crime if it is affecting their livelihood,” he says. “The emotional toll it takes can be huge, especially when you’ve got people who have their animals stolen and the connection they have to them. In many cases it’s about the relationship they have with the animal and wanting them back and caring for their wellbeing.” But he hasn’t observed fear. “If anything, I see more of a resolve to carry on and not be deterred.” In the show’s first season profile on lobster theft, the fisherman installed security cameras and lights. “They never thought in a million years somebody would come down, row out and steal the lobster.

Empty Lobster Traps Stacked on Snowy Dock
    Big Cedar Films photo

“That’s something we try to look at with the show and validate the experiences, whether they’re fishing for their lobster or raising their hens and pigs, whatever they’re doing – the risk people are taking and the toll it takes on them when something bad does happen.”

The issue of rural crime cannot be solved immediately – or in our lifetime. However, police services across the country advise that if producers can adopt extra security measures, perhaps prevention can help lessen these occurrences. BF

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