Safe Communities: Alberta

Mar 15, 2010

If you talk to Alison Redford about what it takes to do her job as Alberta’s Attorney General, her answer isn’t what you would expect from the province’s top lawyer. Crime rates have eased since she was appointed in 2008 but Attorney General Redford would not attribute this success to any one development alone. And, she makes the point that getting tough on crime takes more than just getting tough – it takes getting smart.

Although Alberta has put lots more cops on the street, Minister Redford attributes a safer Alberta to a community based initiative called Safe Com, short for Alberta Safe Communities. More police are, in fact, a major component to the Safe Com initiative but they complement rather than dominate the overall strategy for community safety. Three hundred additional police officers over three years is matched by other community based initiatives. Together, the police/community interaction has, in fact, reduced crime rates. Moreover, because the program has a pay-back model attached, the investment should bring both safety and taxpayer cost benefits.

“When we took a long, hard look at crime prevention, we recognized that this isn’t something you can arrest your way out of,” says Redford. “Even the police will tell you that. You need to balance effective enforcement with prevention and intervention strategies.”

Alberta is entering its final year of implementation for its $468 million, three year experiment in providing Albertans with a safe environment within which to live. Justice Minister Redford is passionate about what’s happening with Safe Com. When she took over the Justice Minister’s office, she inherited the Safe Communities program which originally came into force in the fall of 2007. The multi-ministry approach brings together nine government departments, including Health and Wellness, Education and Children and Youth Services.

“I think collaboration is at the heart of Safe Com,” she says. “Every partner ministry brings their own expertise and best ­practices to the table and it’s allowing us to launch programs that address multiple risk factors.”

Safe Communities was conceived after touring the province to find out how Albertans felt about community safety and crime. “We found out how crime is impacting communities of all sizes. Albertans told us they’re concerned about drugs and violence and repeat offenders. They told us that something needed to be done before criminal activity starts to change the character of our province, and much of that activity involves drugs.”

Under the Safe Com umbrella, new laws have been implemented over the past two years. The Victims Restitution and Compensation Act allows for the seizure of property, vehicles and cash linked to criminal activity. The proceeds from the re-sale of the property supports crime victims. More than $11 million in property, including homes used for marijuana grow operations and so-called “dial-a-dope” delivery vehicles has been restrained under the new legislation. Albertans are also being empowered to clean up their neighbourhoods through the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act, or SCAN. The law targets properties used for criminal activities such as drugs, gangs, and prostitution based on citizen reports. It also makes sure that property owners are held accountable for illegal activities regularly taking place on their property. SCAN promotes community safety by cleaning up properties that meet certain conditions that affect the healthy, comfort, safety or security of the neighbours. SCAN units have investigated more than 500 citizen complaints since launching, and a number of problem properties have even been shut down.

Safe Com and the Cops
For three budgets in a row, the Alberta Government has backed the increased manpower needed to bring effect to the spirit and letter of Safe Com. In each of these budgets, 100 additional police officers have been hired through the Solicitor General’s department, another Safe Com partner ministry. According to Minister Redford, “Our view of the need to back Safe Com with police personnel has been consistent from the outset. Continuity is very important and we cannot let down our guard! By ­supporting the police services and refusing to make them subject to annual budget cuts, even in economic downturns, we solidify our commitment to our most important constituency: the people of Alberta.”

It was important to Minister Redford that the rest of the traditional justice system in Alberta keep pace with the increase in police officers. As such, along with the peace officers, Alberta Justice hired 26 new Crown prosecutors and 41 support staff to help manage the increasing demands on the justice system and to improve court efficiency. Through Safe Com an additional 30 probation officers were hired to add to the 50 brought onboard last year. The notion here is that the added probation officials will be able to enhance the supervision of offenders released back into the community and hopefully the system will come together to provide sustained safety and security in Alberta’s growing communities.

The other aspect that is increasingly recognized as an important component to an effective safe communities program as well as an effective criminal justice system is the use of criminal intelligence. The Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) initiative is a provincially funded project that integrates law enforcement and intelligence gathering units across the province for the sharing of information and reduction of duplication in the growing war against gangs and organized crime.

ALERT has 19 operational law enforcement units that are dedicated to:

  • Disrupting and dismantling organized crime networks, street-level gangs and the drug trade.
  • Tracking down on-line sexual predators who prowl the internet looking to sexually exploit children or trade in child pornography.
  • Working with other intelligence units to collect, evaluate, and disseminate vital information about organized crime.
  • Reducing and preventing domestic violence and stalking situations as well as providing court requested threat assessments and expert evidence.

Community Based Partnerships
Attorney General Redford knows that tougher law enforcement resources and programs like ALERT are required to match the resources, knowledge and networks of criminal gangs and other organized criminal elements. However, she also expresses great faith in the power of community partnerships in the pursuit of safety and security. “We are truly taking our lead from the communities themselves. The communities know what they need to do to address crime at the grassroots level. They just need the tools to do it.” Through the Safe Communities Innovation Fund (SCIF), $60 million has been earmarked for organizations that form partnerships with community agencies to prevent and address crime. The first year of the fund saw successful applicants launch projects to address domestic violence, addiction, youth at-risk and gang intervention. The next round of funded projects will be announced this spring. Minister Redford sees this early success as adding a key component to the overall mission of crime reduction province-wide. “Community engagement is what will drive Safe Com forward,” she says. “These SCIF projects are bringing together community groups to stand up and play active roles in preventing crime in their own backyards.”

Redford believes that in the past the government has been focused on the enforcement side only, and these new Safe Com initiatives represent a fundamental change in thinking. “The work that we’re doing around supporting programs to help with addiction services, mentoring and family violence are just as important to us as the law enforcement part,” Redford says.

“Take, for example, the Community Solution to Gang Violence and the Native Counselling Services organization. These two groups work together to address root causes of gang violence like a lack of education or the lack of good relationships. These joint efforts bring real, meaningful change to the community that results in fewer incidents of violence and property crime.”

The need for partnerships is increasingly critical as it is clearly evident that one agency or one branch of government can neither have all the answers nor provide all the solutions. “The root causes and the solutions to community crime are vested in the community itself and there’s only so much the justice system can do.” admits Minister Redford. “What we have tried to do in Alberta is to bring the notions of belonging and responsibility together. By providing a sense of connectedness and belonging in youth, for example, they are much less likely to be attracted to gangs for friendship and support. At the same time, we hold these same people and their parents and neighbours responsible for making sure that their living environment does not become a breeding ground for gang and criminal behaviour.”

“Our partnerships within the Alberta Government itself – in all there are nine government ministries, police, community groups, municipalities, businesses and social agencies in the deal – are working very well. Everyone believes in the power of the partnerships and sees these collaborations as key to the long term success of Safe Com.” The Attorney General goes on to explain that “Alberta’s Safe Communities Initiative works to address the consequences - the impact – that crime is having on our communities. But it goes further and seeks out meaningful, long-term solutions. Certainly there is no easy fix when it comes to reducing crime and preserving the safety of our communities. However, I am convinced that through cooperation, community innovation and our sustained commitment, we can improve the safety of Alberta communities year over year.”

Spreading the Benefits
Attorney General Redford believes that the Safe Com initiative is truly an evolutionary development in the pursuit of a safe and secure Alberta. “People now understand in the last 30 years we have not really dealt with punishment and enforcement as well as we should have,” says Redford. “People want consequences to be severe and they should be severe. Communities don’t want anyone to think they can get away with anything.”

Complacency is certainly not an option for Redford. “There are a lot of serious issues around gang activity, organized crime and other activities that threaten our communities. I believe that what we have with the Safe Com program is a holistic approach where community members and groups see themselves as involved individually and in partnership with other individuals and organizations with like minded aspirations for the future.”

Attorney General Redford talked to FrontLine about how the investment that Alberta made in Safe Com was returning dividends. Crime rates have been dropping and community awareness and vigilance have become side benefits that will get Alberta to where it needs to be in terms of public safety and security. This may, in fact, be the key element to the success of Safe Com in Alberta and ultimately in the rest of the country. If Safe Com can reach its goals and not be a burden on the taxpayer, why can’t it work in all provinces and territories?

As with just about any other place in Canada, the face of crime in Alberta is often drug related, and drug crime breeds violence. The Alberta Victims Restitution and Compensation Payment Act allows the courts to seize property, like vehicles and weapons, which have been used to commit crime. The Act will also be used to compensate victims as well as to disrupt the business of organized crime. This legislation also promises to be effective in allowing police agencies across Alberta to target dangerous property for removal from the community.  This property usually involves vehicles that are used to commit crime or homes that are used to grow marijuana or make crystal meth. The proceeds from the forfeited property will be used to repair losses and injuries suffered by victims.

Minister Redford is anxious to communicate Alberta’s Safe Communities Initiative successes with the rest of Canada. Partly she has done this at meetings of provincial Attorneys General.  More proactively yet, Minister Redford has held consultations with the Alberta Chiefs of Police Association and with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.  She is indeed passionate about safe communities and about every individual or organization that shares her commitment to the cause.

Edward R. Myers, Editor, FrontLine Security
© FrontLine Security 2010