Recently, you may have seen stories on the shift of conservation officer duties to police work, from traditional fish and wildlife enforcement. Don’t be confused, our focus is and always will be the protection of fish and wildlife resources. However, the landscape in Saskatchewan has changed somewhat with an increase in rural crime and dangerous driving behaviours.
In August 2017, the provincial government created a Protection and Response Team to tackle these problems in rural Saskatchewan. To assist the RCMP and other police agencies, the government assigned approximately 100 conservation officers and 40 highway transport officers to the initiative. For the most part, this will not be much of a shift from the work conservation officers have done in the past. Conservation officers have always assisted the RCMP when help was needed. Now we will be dispatched routinely on 911 calls if we can respond sooner to a rural crime issue, or if the RCMP needs additional police assistance. We’ve done it before, now we just do it more often.
Conservation officers have always been designated as peace officers. This means we basically have the same powers and authorities as an RCMP officer. The only difference is that criminal law and traffic were not our mandated duties. We would deal with them when we came across them in the field, but only in specific circumstances.
Over the years, I have enforced boating violations, alcohol violations and traffic violations, especially if they have posed a threat to public safety.
Conservation officers have expanded authorities and responsibilities to deal with rural emergencies, including traffic enforcement. Our daily plan will be to conduct our mandated fish and wildlife work, so we won’t plan to patrol the highways like the RCMP, solely looking for traffic or criminal code violations. As conservation officers conduct the regular work you expect, we will also act on anything else we see. For example, distracted driving can result in a high risk of injury (higher than impaired driving).
If a conservation officer observes someone using a cellphone while driving, then that officer will pull them over and issue a violation ticket.
These added duties will result in conservation officers taking advanced training in domestic violence, mental health issues, impaired driving enforcement and working co-operatively with the RCMP on dealing with rural crime. This new training will put us on the same page procedurally and tactically when dealing with a dangerous situation we may be asked to assist with.
Along with this new training comes new equipment installed in patrol trucks: roadside screening devices for alcohol; safety shields between the front and back seats; laptops; and automated licence plate scanners. These are now standard in many vehicles, with more training and equipment available as the program evolves.
The inside of my truck now looks like the cockpit of a 737 jet, but I do not mind, as it makes us more efficient and safe. In the beginning, the message was clearly rural crime enforcement, but the traffic safety component has also been added, which makes a lot of sense.
In March alone, there were more than 750 distracted driving offences, 4,200 speeding offences and 329 impaired driving violations. This clearly outlines a need for more enforcement and public education as to the dangers of these practices. Aside from wearing the uniform of a conservation officer, I am also a 20-year member of the Weyburn Fire Department. I have attended many traffic collisions as a result of impaired driving, speed and distracted driving, so I fully support anything that helps makes our roads safer.
So don’t be surprised if you get stopped by a conservation officer when you have committed a violation. As I have stated previously, conservation officers have the same authority as your local RCMP, which include search, arrest and short periods of detainment while an investigation is conducted.
Will conservation officers perform traffic safety enforcement in cities?
Our goal and mandate is not to plan our day to drive around Saskatoon or Regina looking for impaired drivers or distracted drivers. However, if we do see issues requiring an enforcement action, we will act upon them. We may call the city police or we may act ourselves. So yes, you may see a conservation officer pulling over someone anywhere in Saskatchewan.
If you see a farmer driving an unregistered truck during harvest, will you write him a ticket for it? Farmers and residents in rural Saskatchewan are a huge component of our success in solving wildlife violations. But, if I find someone in an unregistered truck, I cannot let them continue on.
Our goal is compliance, so perhaps ensuring you immediately permit your vehicle online may be an option. Total refusal to co-operate, or follow the legislation, because you are too busy will not work. The only other option is a $580 fine and impoundment of the vehicle.
Officers will take the information, nature of the violation, previous offences and co-operation into account when making an enforcement decision.
Our goal, along with every other police officer in the province, is to ensure public safety and this is all part of the process.
Will conservation officers be responding to 911 calls as well as TIP calls?
Yes, 911 dispatch will make the decision to have a conservation officer attend along with the RCMP. The call goes out across our provincial radio system and officers who are close by will respond accordingly.
Ministry conservation officers will not assume responsibility for any file generated with the call, as the RCMP will take ownership of the investigation. We are simply there to provide assistance, create a deterrent to criminal activity with our presence and provide a possiblly quicker response to an emergency if we are in the area.
The new Protection and Response Team is still in its infancy and officers are learning as it unfolds. We are also generating closer working relationships with rural RCMP and those who live in rural Saskatchewan. There will be some hiccups along the way, but our goal is to help make Saskatchewan safer and less attractive to the criminal element.
Until next week … please stay off your phone while driving.
— Ministry of Environment conservation officer Lindsey Leko has spent more than 26 years as a conservation officer in Saskatchewan. For many years, Leko contributed a column to local papers on a variety of issues related to hunting, fishing, and other resource-related issues. If you have questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.