SUNDRE — About three dozen area residents who earlier this month attended an RCMP community engagement open house expressed among other matters concerns about the revolving door of the judicial system and also asked questions about their rights pertaining to self defence.
Approximately 30 people came out on the evening of Monday, May 2 to the James River Community Hall, where the Sundre RCMP commander had organized a public open house in coordination with regional law enforcement counterparts including peace officers from Mountain View County and Clearwater County as well as the district Fish and Wildlife officer.
Although Sgt. Trent Sperlie had previously participated in a couple of other community engagements, those events had been led by other organizations – one by Fish and Wildlife as well as another by the Sundre Petroleum Operators Group – and the meeting in James River was the first he’d spearheaded and organized for a conversation specifically discussing policing in the area.
“Overall, it went very well – lots of positive comments,” said Sperlie. “Lots of support for all of the law enforcement agencies that were there.”
During his presentation, Sperlie said he touched on current crime trends as well as rates of recidivism and Mounties’ ongoing efforts to reduce instances of property crimes.
Two people present for the discussion spoke up to express concerns about a break-and-enter report they’d filed with the RCMP.
“They didn’t think enough was done,” said Sperlie, adding the two also felt there had been inadequate communication to them from the detachment during the course of the investigation.
“I discussed the investigation with them during a break,” he said.
“We understand we don’t get it right every time, and I will use the comments to assess what we can do better in the future,” the sergeant added. “Based on the feedback from those people, we’re definitely going to look at where we can sharpen things up and enhance the level of service.”
Revolving door of justice
In terms of other more commonly expressed concerns, the sergeant – who is no stranger to participating in town halls – said rates of recidivism have risen toward the top.
“The one that has really come up at every town hall within the last year and a little bit, is probably the recidivism in our judicial system,” said Sperlie.
Over the past number of years, people had generally been more pre-occupied with what law enforcement agencies were doing about property and rural crime, he said.
“Those comments were important because it helped us re-focus as an organization, and we’ve created the crime reduction units, which are really successful,” he said.
But public sentiment seems to be shifting, he added.
“That’s kind of evolved now,” he said. “People are concerned about the recidivism. It’s commonly referred to – when the questions are asked – the ‘revolving door’ in the judicial system.”
However, that’s not the sergeant’s jurisdiction.
“That’s out of my lane,” he said candidly, going on to express empathy for the courts. “But I can say, the judicial system – especially after COVID – is very back logged. That’s not easy either.”
Also attending the open house was Bergen-area resident Gerald Ingeveld, who was representing and spoke on behalf of both the Sundre Citizens on Patrol Association as well as Rural Crime Watch.
Asked what were among the most frequently asked questions or concerns shared throughout the evening, Ingeveld said one of the main topics of discussion was what people can do to be a part of the solution.
“Property crime is the big one – what can we do to help prevent property crime,” he said.
But people also wanted to know what they, as citizens, can do about what they see “as a revolving door” of justice, he said.
“We know that drugs is driving a lot of this,” he said. “The officers are doing the best they can within the rules that they have to work with. It’s really our political leaders that have to come to grips with our judicial system and deal with that sort of thing.”
Debunking self defence myth
Among other commonly asked questions, the sergeant said, is what citizens can do to defend themselves and protect their property without ending up on the wrong side of the law.
“There’s a popular myth out there that you can’t defend yourself in Canada,” he said. “That is a myth. You can – it has to be reasonable under the circumstances, and you’ll be held to that threshold if it ever goes to court.”
While there is no simple, cut-and-dry answer for every situation, Sperlie said the issue boils down to a person having to feel that their life is in imminent danger if they resort to using lethal force against someone else in self defence.
“And that’s completely different than somebody that’s fleeing from you that stole a tank of gas,” he said. “Canadian law doesn’t allow for you to use that level of force on somebody that’s taken your property. So, it has to be reasonable under the circumstances.”
Although a “very touchy subject,” anyone who doesn’t think Canadians have the right to defend themselves is “actually wrong,” he said, recommending that anyone who wants to learn more might consider reviewing the Criminal Code or even speak with a legal authority such as a lawyer for a more in-depth explanation.
“(The law) is meant so that you can actually defend yourself from real danger. It isn’t meant as a vigilantism mechanism. We don’t have a ‘stand your ground’ law or anything like that,” he said.
So, while using deadly force to defend one’s self in the face of an imminent threat is covered under Canadian law, legal protection essentially evaporates the moment there is no longer a threat to life or limb, such as when a suspect turns their back to flee, he said.
Furthermore, police caution people against potentially escalating a situation as it’s impossible to know just how far a desperate suspect is willing to go to avoid being caught.
“In the end, is it worth your safety – or somebody else’s safety that you’re with – to try to protect that gallon of gas?” he said.
“And emotion is not a good motivator for good decision making. Making an emotionally-charged decision – especially an angry emotion – tends to cloud the ability to make clear decisions.”
Social media benefits and drawbacks
In the digital age of 24-7 connectivity, many people seem to report crimes such as stolen vehicles primarily through social media.
“Social media can be a really valuable tool,” said Sperlie. “The further we get this information out there, the faster we get it out there, the more chance there is of being able to solve crime.”
But the drawback is that some people don’t always promptly follow-up by calling in a report to the police.
“We’re finding that people put things on social media that are extremely valuable to the investigation, but it’s not information that actually came to us,” he explained, adding, “The members don’t have time to sit and search social media.”
That’s not to say officers never scroll online, he said, adding one member at the detachment had during some time off noticed a post featuring information about a vehicle reported stolen.
“One of my members did see one of those posts just in passing on his days off, and when he came to work he actually encountered that vehicle and was able to arrest the person,” he said.
“It’s not that we’re not on there. Everybody’s on a social media platform of some sort. But it’s not something that we go to as part of our investigational tools."
“The reality is the members don’t spend a lot of time on social media. It’s really important that if there’s anything you know – especially in a file that we’re investigating for you – any information that you come about that you think is relevant to that investigation, that should be brought directly to us so that we can look at it in a timely manner.”
The community’s eyes and ears
Ingeveld praised Sperlie’s effort to engage with the community, and said he felt the sergeant listened to what people said and that the town hall was worth attending.
“Kudos to the sergeant. That’s really going above and beyond,” said Ingeveld.
Many of the questions and concerns are the same ones that have been discussed as long as he recalls being involved in community groups like Citizens on Patrol and Rural Crime Watch.
“And I’ve been involved for almost 40 years,” he said. “The answer is always the same – for private citizens to be the eyes and ears of the community and report suspicious activity.”
Another recurring issue is some people’s reluctance to call in suspicious activity.
“That’s still a problem, where people go, ‘Well, it might be nothing,’” he said. “So, they don’t call it in.”
Ingeveld encourages members of the community to get involved anyway they can – either by joining one of the associations or simply remaining vigilant with their eyes and ears open.
Although dates had yet been set in stone when Sperlie spoke with the Albertan, the sergeant said he anticipated at least two more similar public engagement sessions – one in Bergen followed by another in Sundre.