Rural stakeholders unite – in person and online – to prevent thefts, break-ins and vandalism.
by Michelle Jones
“You used to leave your equipment in the field when you were done for the day. … (Now), you come back to it in the morning to (find) the windows smashed out of it or the toolboxes stolen,” says Bruce Galbraith, rural crime watch coordinator for the rural municipality of Rosser, Man.
Galbraith’s experiences northwest of Winnipeg are not unique. In 2017, the police-reported crime rate in rural Canada was 23 per cent higher than in urban areas, Statistics Canada says. Those rates were even higher in the Prairies: the rural crime rate ranged between 36 and 42 per cent higher than in urban areas.
Rural communities typically experience vehicle theft, tool and equipment theft, break-ins and vandalism. In response to the high rates of crime, rural communities are working with their local Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) detachments and forming or revitalizing rural crime watch groups.
Regional and provincial programs
Rosser has had its Rural Crime Watch Program for over 25 years. The system has its ups and downs. Citizens let their guard down when a lull in crime occurs, Galbraith says to Better Farming.
“We (must) have meetings to get everybody thinking about (the issue) again. We try to put on a couple meetings a year if it’s not too busy, just to keep everyone informed,” he says.
“At the meetings, we try to have people come as guest speakers. The RCMP let us know what’s happening and what we should do to protect ourselves.”
Galbraith also sends out monthly emails to crime watch members to remind them to be vigilant.
Brittany Flegel photo
In Saskatchewan, Moose Jaw-area farmer Nick Cornea started the Farmers Against Rural Crime Facebook group in February 2018. He wanted the group to serve as a support system and to raise awareness of the high incidence of crime in the area.
Brittany Flegel photo
Since its creation, the group has attracted over 16,000 members across Canada and the United States. Members can post photos of stolen property or call attention to suspicious activity in their regions.
Even the RCMP has put this Facebook group to use. Cornea points to the rash of vehicle thefts and break-and-enters that occurred just south of Regina near Lang and Milestone in the spring of 2018. RCMP representatives posted a message on the Farmers Against Rural Crime Facebook page to alert area residents of the incidents and to urge members to lock their vehicles.
“Within one night, the (region) went from having one or two vehicles stolen a night to zero. (The crimes) just dropped off immediately. The thieves found out people were being more vigilant about their property, and they moved out of there,” says Cornea.
A newer effort – launched in February 2019 – is Alberta-based Project Lock Up. This partnership between the Alberta RCMP and several provincial and rural organizations assists crime victims.
Rural Albertans are seeing an increase in police patrols in the hardest-hit areas, enhanced victim support and access to tools such as Trace Pens, which are property-marking devices. The project also includes a special operations deployment that targets offenders operating in the areas with the most crimes.
Chris Warren, a corporal with the Alberta RCMP, tells Better Farming that officials have found success through the project.
“Recently, the Western Alberta District rural crime reduction unit executed a search warrant. They recovered a stolen vehicle, a travel trailer, a quad and thousands of dollars’ worth of tools. A repeat offender was remanded into custody as a result of this investigation,” he says.
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Technology also plays a part in deterring theft. Many crime watch groups are designing apps and text-message alerts to help farmers protect their property.
For example, the Alberta Provincial Rural Crime Watch Association released an app in September. The tool provides users with the name and phone number of the nearest RCMP detachment. The app is only available to Alberta residents and is available for download on the Alberta Provincial Rural Crime Watch Association webpage.
“Just tap the phone number and it will dial for you, enabling you to immediately report suspicious activity to the correct detachment,” says Cor De Wit, a farmer in the Leduc area and president of the Alberta Provincial Rural Crime Watch Association.
Lightcatch, another app developed in Alberta, allows people who witness a crime or illegal activity to upload information and video to the app. It then notifies subscribers in the area and sends the information to police.
“In 2018, a test run of the system in the Grande Prairie, Alta., area met with huge success. Thousands got involved and together they helped recover over $1.2 million of stolen goods – including 33 stolen vehicles and priceless items like a father’s ashes,” reads the app description in the Google Play Store.
In addition to sharing information with officials, rural families can also receive updates from the police. Saskatchewan residents, for example, can subscribe to a crime notification system. Launched in March, the system allows subscribers to choose to receive alerts through text, email or phone calls.
“This new network will allow Saskatchewan residents to receive credible, accurate and timely crime prevention information directly from their local RCMP detachment,” a March RCMP statement says.
“When a detachment becomes aware of an incident or crime, it can issue an advisory via the system and local residents who have signed up for the program will become aware of what happened.”
Cornea assisted in the network’s creation and has been a subscriber since the launch. He receives notifications for all of Saskatchewan, so he can add alerts to the Farmers Against Rural Crime Facebook group.
Subscribers can specify areas of the province about which they would like to receive information, he says. Subscribers will not be overwhelmed with notifications, and he has only received a couple of late-night alerts since March, he adds.
In Rosser, Galbraith receives information from the local RCMP detachment about suspicious activity within the rural municipality. He then texts or emails the relevant area captain, who distributes the information to his or her team, which consists of approximately 10 farm families.
RCMP efforts and limitations
Overall, rural communities are very happy with the response of the RCMP officers involved in rural crime watch partnerships, Cornea, De Wit and Galbraith say.
More officers are needed, they say, but they understand that the government funding is not available.
“The RCMP is involved with its crime reduction units and they’ve been successful, but there are funding issues, too. And I understand the funding issues,” says De Wit. “I think the RCMP have done a hell of a job of trying to get control of (rural crime). But there’s only so much they can do.”
Rural residents in all three Prairie provinces also say that RCMP turnover is a problem. Over time, police officers get to know the residents in the area, so it’s easier for officers to spot suspicious activity.
When these officers accept new posts, their replacements must familiarize themselves with the community. Suspicious activity could go unnoticed.
Criminals look for property they can steal and sell quickly, says De Wit.
So, farmers can take several steps to deter thefts, vandalism and break-and-enters.
Producers should record serial numbers of their vehicles and equipment, Galbraith says.
Farmers can use Trace Pens to mark their property, too. Residents can often access these tools through their local RCMP detachment or crime watch organization. If the groups don’t offer the pens, consider suggesting that the organizations make these tools available.
If property is stolen, the RCMP can use serial numbers and information recorded on the items with Trace Pens to return recovered property to the rightful owners.
Security lights and cameras can deter criminals. Solar lights work well for areas without electricity, and motion sensor lights can alert property owners that someone is in the yard.
Cutting down trees that block windows, installing alarmed gates that set off an alert in the house when opened and getting a guard dog can help too.
The old saying two heads are better than one also applies in the case of crime reduction.
“Neighbours are the best eyes and ears. If you’re going away for a weekend or a quick break before crops start up or whatever, get your neighbours to check your yard. Check for traffic going in and out,” says DeWit.
If you see a suspicious person or vehicle on your property, do not approach or confront the person or go near the vehicle, RCMP officials say. Instead, call your local RCMP detachment and report your concerns.
“We would never recommend anyone attempt to engage suspects. Putting your life in danger to protect property is not worth the risk. Call 911 immediately and report activity to police,” says Warren.
Brittany Flegel photo
Overall, De Wit equates a lot of crime prevention tactics to common sense.
“Do not go on Facebook and tell everyone you’re going on holidays. Do not leave your keys in the vehicle. Just about half the vehicles stolen in Alberta had the keys left in them,” he says.
“Don’t leave items around your yard like a yard sale. It sounds silly, but that’s exactly what you’re doing,” De Wit says. BF
How to keep your property safe on the farm
- leave equipment in the field.
- leave your keys in your vehicles or farm equipment.
- leave your vehicles or farm equipment unlocked.
- leave your belongings in your yard in plain sight. Out of sight, out of mind.
- approach or engage a suspicious person. He or she could be armed.
- post on social media that you will be away from your property.
- lock up all belongings after you finish using them with tamper-proof locks.
- install lights, cameras, alarm systems and alarmed gates.
- get to know your neighbours and watch out for each other.
- join rural crime watch groups to stay up to date on incidents of crime in your area.
- regularly attend rural crime watch meetings in your local community.
- report suspicious activity to your local Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment. BF
Rural crime prevention resources
If you would like to learn more about strategies for preventing crime in your community, you can reach out to these organizations.
Alberta Citizens on Patrol
Alberta Provincial Rural Crime Watch Association
Citizens on Patrol Program
Check with your rural municipality to get involved in crime watch programs in your area.
Farmers Against Rural Crime Facebook group
Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities
Saskatchewan Crime Watch Advisory Network
Saskatchewan does not have a provincial Citizens on Patrol association, but some communities have programs. For more information, visit ccopa.ca/saskatchewan. BF