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Alberta explores creation of civilian corps to support police

A motion from a UCP MLA is leading the government to explore involving more civilians in law enforcement.

Private members' motion sparks debate about role of citizen policing in Alberta

A private members' motion has sparked debate about role of citizen policing in Alberta. (CBC)

A motion from a UCP MLA is leading the government to explore involving more civilians in law enforcement.

The legislature passed the motion on Monday, which urged the minister of justice to examine "options to establish a voluntary civilian corps to assist law enforcement in Alberta." 

The non-government initiative was brought forward by Todd Loewen, who represents the rural riding of Central Peace-Notley. Next steps are up to the minister.

Statistics Canada shows the crime rate in rural Alberta is 38 per cent higher than in urban areas of the province.

Combating that statistic is what prompted Loewen to introduce the motion — which could see private citizens taking on enhanced law enforcement roles.

"It's a big concern all across Alberta. The amount of crime, and in particular rural crime, has been a hot issue for years now," he told CBC News. 

In his mind's eye, Loewen said he envisions unarmed local residents working side by side with police officers in low-risk activities to reduce crime. That could include duties like assisting with natural disaster recovery, traffic control and other non-violent emergencies. 

Loewen was insistent; this motion is not to replace police, nor is it a sanctioning of vigilante justice. 

Motions have no teeth. They're not binding and don't create legislation. Minister Doug Schweitzer holds the cards now.  However, this motion is raising questions about what role citizens should play in policing the province. 

Criminologist excited by potential benefits

Kelly Sundberg, a criminologist at Mount Royal University, is excited by the potential benefits. 

"This is a model I think that Canada really needs," he said.

When done right, Sundberg says there's evidence civilian law enforcement saves money and boosts community safety. Plus, he added that infusing citizens can often improve negative police culture like harassment and discrimination. 

His excitement was accompanied by a word of caution. While there are success stories to draw from, like the U.K., there are also examples of civilian law enforcement going horribly wrong. 

If it's not managed properly, Sundberg said it can slip into vigilantism, unhealthy power dynamics, and serious injuries.

He added there are several things that have been proven to make a difference, like thorough training and screening of applicants, building collaboration between the volunteers and officers, and establishing proper oversight.  

If the idea is pursued, Sundberg said Alberta's success will balance on those factors like a teeter-totter.

"If it's done incorrectly it can be a disaster, but if it's done right it can be amazing. It's really going to be one thing or the other," he said. 

"It's very important that the government get the model right."

Opposition worries about citizen safety

The NDP has concerns about the vagueness of the motion's wording. 

"Does this replace existing structures? Does this go farther than existing structures? Is this a part of law enforcement? There really were no answers," MLA Marie Renaud said. 

Her party also is worried about the strain this could place on communities and the safety of citizen volunteers, citing the death of Rod Lazenby. The peace officer was attacked and killed while responding to an animal complaint in 2012. 

Renaud said adding police presence isn't the solution to underlying social issues that contribute to crime. 

"We need to take a very broad look at investing in not just law enforcement, not just emergency response, but prevention." 

Ubaka Ogbogu, a law professor at the University of Alberta tweeted that recent events stemming from police killing people of colour have proven that more law enforcement doesn't automatically equal safer communities.

Loewen agreed that the timing of the motion was unfortunate but said the text was submitted for presentation in the legislature months ago. 

He also said there has been "fear mongering" from people who don't understand it properly. 

"If you look at the motion there's no word 'militia' in there at all. There's no intention to have them armed. They won't be responding to 911 calls. They're not going to take over for police. They're not vigilantes. They're just people in the community that would want to volunteer to help the law enforcement." 

There are also questions about the necessity of such a measure, as there are neighbourhood watch initiatives and the RCMP already runs a civilian law enforcement branch called the Auxiliary Program. 

Sundberg said that program is inadequate and mostly defunct, so there's an argument to be made in favour of a carefully constructed civilian force specific to Alberta.

The next step is for Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer to review the motion. He will then decide whether to implement the recommendation, consult with experts, or to let it fall to the wayside. 

"While we have to study this particular motion, in general the government welcomes peaceful initiatives taken by law-abiding volunteers to help keep their communities safe and secure," the minister's office said in a statement to CBC News. 

There's no timeline set out for this phase.  It could take months until the fate of this motion is decided.

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