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'Non-stop' crime in Cold Lake proving very taxing on city, local businesses

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An increase in property crime is wearing on a northern Alberta city whose residents feel the problem is a larger system issue.

Municipal property and businesses are damaged almost daily in Cold Lake, according to the mayor and the local chamber of commerce.

Much of the time, it's stuff that's considered petty crime: vandalism, graffiti, random theft.

But one night, thieves hooked a trailer up to a roll of electrical cable that was designated for a housing subdivision and took off.

In another case, vandals broke into the city's communications centre, causing parts of the system to go offline. Traffic lights stopped working in one part of the city, as did the lift stations that move wastewater between locations.

"We could have had a major disaster if it wasn't for the great work that the city staff and the contractor did to bring the system back up," Craig Copeland, who has lived in Cold Lake since 1985 and served as mayor since 2007, told CTV News Edmonton in a recent interview.

Also concerning to him are the fires that are started at the landfill, he says, by homeless people.

The landfill is one of the most frequently targeted city properties. At one point, staff attempted to prevent people from breaking into the building by blocking its industrial doors with bales of dry waste, but the effort was labour intensive and the bundles were torn apart.

"Some of the vandalism we're dealing with in Cold Lake is $50,000 a night," Copeland said.

"Even though the crime might seem petty, it's really impacting the business community in a big way."

Ryan Lefebvre, president of the Cold Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce and owner of Coldwell Banker Lifestyle real estate brokerage, also cited cost as the biggest impact on business owners.

His business was broken into about three months ago.

"Taking the time to fix it, fix the problem, repairing it. Those costs and time add up for them. And then it seems like it doesn't stop either for them. It's a repeat, non stop," Lefebvre said.

Some entrepreneurs have hired private security to conduct random patrols, hoping that's enough to discourage would-be criminals.

"To them, paying that cost is less than fixing the costs that are caused by vandalism and vagrancy," he said.

"Never before have businesses in town hired private security, so I think that's an indicator right there of the problem getting worse."

'NO REAL TEETH IN THE JUSTICE SYSTEM'

The City of Cold Lake will spend more than $4 million on RCMP service in 2023, according to Copeland.

According to data from the local detachment, property crime has been rising since 2019. In 2023, there was a 26-per cent increase over 2022.

Const. Christa Shirtliff told CTV News Edmonton more and more charges are laid every year, too – the result, she said, of Mounties ramping up their efforts.

"We have people who are on curfews and things like that… We monitor them, we do curfew checks, we ensure that they're home, and then we just make proactive patrols in areas that seem to be hot spots."

Anecdotally, Shirtliff has also noted increased participation in community programs like a registry Cold Lake residents who have home surveillance systems.

But the issue needing action, according to Copeland and Lefebvre, is repeat offending. Shirtliff said she couldn't confirm this with statistics.

Lefebvre said, "It feels like it's somewhat of a catch and release. There's no real teeth in the justice system to reprimand the people that keep doing it and oftentimes, what we hear from local bylaw, peace officers, RCMP, it is the same group of people that do it over and over again."

He added: "I don't think we're alone, either, in this. I think, unfortunately, it's a problem happening in our province and across the country."

The mayor said the city is "very happy" with the RCMP and that the detachment is simply overburdened.

He's calling on the provincial and federal governments to provide more municipal funding or make some other legislative change.

"We've met with the justice minister … and we're just lobbying to have maybe more RCMP officers brought in from the province side, or Sheriffs, and then look at the court system; bring in tougher sentencing when people do get convicted."

Shirtliff commented, "It's a much bigger problem than an RCMP problem. We can't just arrest our way out of property crime."

Already, Cold Lake is spending more on policing, 24/7 bylaw enforcement and security.

Copeland is expecting the city will have to increase property taxes next year because the rise in crime is expensive.

"You're just going to have to go back to the ratepayers to try and put more money into enforcement. That's really our only avenue. We don't control the court system and we're asking the province and the feds to take a real big look at the court system because it's definitely broken and they need to stop slapping people on the wrist when they're getting caught."

In a statement to CTV News Edmonton, a spokesperson for federal Justice Minister Arif Virani said, in part:

"Provincial and territorial counterparts have agreed that more work needs to be done on non-legislative solutions to tackle the root causes of crime, including better mental health services, access to safe housing and addictions treatment. Minister Virani is highly supportive of this approach."

CTV News Edmonton has reached out to the Alberta government for comment on this story.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Jessica Robb and Brandon Lynch 

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