By Lisa Joy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Gang violence is on the rise in Saskatchewan and the province’s highly-trained RCMP Crime Reduction Teams aim to reduce gang activity and make the province safer.
The CRT units have the ability to react fast.
“If there is an emergent situation they will deploy rapidly,” said S/Sgt. Darcy Woolfitt of the North Battleford CRT in an interview Feb. 5.
According to Jessica Cantos, Saskatchewan Media Relations, to date, the CRT teams in the province have made 516 arrests. They have laid a total of 424 Criminal Code, Controlled Drug and Substance Act, and provincial charges. Of those, 273 were under the CDSA.
There are two CRTs operated by the RCMP in Saskatchewan – Prince Albert and North Battleford. Each team has seven RCMP members (one sergeant, one corporal, and five constables), as well as one analyst and administrative position. Also, as part of the provincial Gang Violence Strategy, provincially funded police resources in Saskatoon, Regina and Prince Alberta have been reorganized into CRTs.
The CRTs perform proactive and reactive policing.
Their main goal is to conduct targeted enforcement, or “hotspotting,” based on crime trend analysis, intelligence and consultations with community leaders. These units focus enforcement efforts on provincial and municipal policing priorities, including gang violence, gun crime and the sale of dangerous drugs such as crystal meth and fentanyl.
Their work involves high visibility patrols.
“We are in regular RCMP uniforms and drive marked vehicles,” said Woolfitt. “We are totally overt. We don’t hide who we are or what we are doing.”
Proactively, the CRT members track chronic offenders, combat street-gang activity, and make arrests. CRT members are given target sheets, lists of people they’re assigned to look for and arrest on outstanding warrants. The sheet contains biographical data, warrant changes, known associates and gang affiliates.
“We tend to focus on people who have a lot of violent criminal offence convictions, obviously some of those are weapons related and drug related,” said Woolfitt.
CRT teams, when needed, have support from RCMP Police Dog Services (PDS) and RCMP air support. They are also able to access assistance from other police detachments, inter-provincial assistance and plainclothes units.
CRT units don’t replace RCMP detachments but rather they work in partnership with RCMP detachments and municipal law enforcement agencies to give a co-ordinated response to rural crime. In 2019 the province designated a provincial gang crown prosecutor. The Ministry of Justice also increased the number of security intelligence officers in correctional facilities to enhance information sharing abilities.
Gangs, however, aren’t a new problem.
“Crime didn’t start last year and it didn’t start 10 years ago,” said Woolfitt. “Everything evolves. It has continued to evolve over the years.”
Gangs rip youth from school and home and pull them into a life of crime.
“There are a lot of systemic problems that go beyond the criminal offences,” he said. “There’s a lot of underlining factors, a multitude of factors that create the environment for gangs to flourish. A part of it comes down to where the kids are growing up. Do they have a mom and dad or are they living with aunty and grandma?
“The young people who get pulled into the gang lifestyle more often than not have an extremely dysfunctional home life, a majority, not all,” he added. “They are climatized towards the gang lifestyle. It gives them a sense of belonging and a sense of family. That lifestyle evolves just like any lifestyle evolves.”
But, the police alone can’t eliminate gang activity.
“There are things that involve the police,” said Woolfitt. “There are other aspects that involve social agencies and the courts. Education is key. A lot of these kids who are falling into gangs are not staying in school and getting a proper education. Once they get involved in a gang lifestyle they may not see any opportunity to turn their life around.”
One of the biggest challenges for law enforcement is reaching the youth who have been pulled into the gang lifestyle.
“Some want to get out but may be too scared. How do we create opportunities for these kids to exit gang life and find a better life? That’s the challenge for us.”
That’s where building relationships comes into play.
Working with the specialized CRT unit takes police officers who are good at connecting with people and building relationships, said Woolfitt.
Being on the CRT unit also takes police officers with a keen sense of awareness of their surroundings and people.
“They have to be very in tune with reading the situation and understanding what to look for, any type of criminal activity. Whether it’s talking to someone on the street, or while doing a traffic stop, or attending a residence, do they have that level of awareness to observe what is going on.”
The work may be challenging but being a part of the CRT unit has its rewards.
Woolfitt said CRT members like making a positive difference and providing a sense of safety and reassurance to communities. He added that they like knowing, “some of the people causing the most harm to the community have been charged and have been taken to task for what they have done to the communities.”
With an increase in gang recruitment and activity, Woolfitt said he understands the fear some community members may have.
“We don’t want people to live in fear. We want them to be knowledgeable. Live knowledgeable. You can’t turn a blind eye when you know what certain people are doing in your community.”
And combatting gang violence takes more than the RCMP.
“It doesn’t just involve the police,” said Woolfitt. “It’s a multi-agency response and a community response to what is going on.”
The CRT members collaborate with communities and partner agencies to reduce gang violence and activity. In December 2019 the Saskatchewan Ministry of Corrections and Policing announced they were investing $4.5 million over the next four years into two community-based organizations, STR8 UP, a Saskatoon-based non-profit that helps people leave the lifestyle, and Regina Treaty Status Indian Services Inc.
RT/SIS delivers the Community Intervention Model in Saskatchewan. Through this model, STR8 UP and RT/SIS provide outreach, intervention and prevention services to help gang members leave the lifestyle and integrate back into their communities.
The CRTs operated by the RCMP (North Battleford and Prince Albert) get $2.4 million in funding for salaries through the Provincial Policing Services Agreement. The province provides the municipal CRTs (Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert) with $2 million in funding for salaries through the Municipal Police Grants program. An additional $1.17 million in operating funds is provided to the RCMP to support RCMP members of the municipal CRTs.
“Collectively, the province provides $5.57 million in funding for CRTs in Saskatchewan,” said Noel Busse, spokesperson for Saskatchewan Ministry of Justice and Attorney General, on Feb. 12.