More rural crime-watchers sign up as 'extra eyes and ears' for police

People around the province are trying to set up monitoring groups in an effort to combat rising rural crime rates.

Grassroots teams patrol their neighbourhoods and flag issues to RCMP

Aimee Szarka, who helped start Langdon Citizens on Patrol, is hoping for more funds to train the group's 16 volunteers. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Grassroots rural crime-watching organizations are hearing from more people interested in starting patrol teams in Alberta.

The Alberta Citizens on Patrol Association says it has 16 groups finishing up the paperwork to start patrols in their own communities, says president Bev Salomon.

Volunteers, spread among the existing 70 branches, patrol their neighbourhoods and watch for crimes in progress. They jot down licence plates of suspicious vehicles, for example, or call 911.

The goal is to fill any gaps left by police who patrol large swaths of rural land.

"Sixteen new groups in the last couple of months. That's an extra lot of operating expenses that are needed," she told CBC News.

Safety 'top of the list'

Trevor Tychkowsky, president of the Alberta Provincial Rural Crime Watch Association, says he's had 15 groups show interest in starting up.

"We can't always rely on the police to be there when crime happens," he said. "Let's stop it. Let's make it difficult for them to get there first."

In recent weeks, rural property owners have been speaking out about their challenges keeping their homes, livestock and farms safe in areas where they say police are too far away to stop crimes in progress. The province has earmarked more money for law enforcement and prosecution of alleged criminals.​

Both organizations receive their funding through a variety of grants, and haven't seen those amounts increase.

Langdon Citizens on Patrol has about 16 volunteers who keep an eye out for suspicious activity in their community, which is just east of Calgary. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

This year, they've asked for more money, and the Alberta government is considering those grant applications now.

Tychkowsky is looking for an extra $20,000 to pay for speakers to help educate rural crime watch groups on fentantyl-related crime and how to design property to prevent theft.

"These small local clubs are working hard ... and they're running on very little budget," he said.

"So when we tell them they should bring on speakers, well, most of the time they can't afford the hall, they can't afford these small things. We're asking the province for a bit of an increase."

The group typically runs on an annual $30,000 of funding.

More money available

On Friday, the province announced a $10-million plan to deal with rural crime, with Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley noting some communities are experiencing "the highest property crime rates they've seen in five years."

Police have said rural crime jumped 41 per cent between 2013 and 2017. It's unclear what's causing the increased criminal activity, although police have noted part of the recorded increase may be inflated due to an increase in reporting.

The new provincial funds are earmarked to hire more police officers, more Crown prosecutors and to add organized crime specialists to investigative teams.

Aimee Szarka, who helped start Langdon Citizens on Patrol, says she's hoping for more money to train her 16 volunteers.

"The main purpose of us is to be the extra eyes and ears for law enforcement," she said.

"Our safety should be at the top of the list — and, of course, equipment — so we can do the best job that we can."

With files from Dave Gilson