Chris Manuel, city protective and social services director, speaks at the Grande Prairie Farmer Market’s Safer Downtown Meeting while mangers and shop owners watch in Grande Prairie, Alta. on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022. The farmers market went on to say in the past six years it has contacted police (bylaw and RCMP) 66 times, along with the building being broken into three times. The meeting saw over 50 people attend. (Photo by Jesse Boily)Jesse Boily

Original Published on Aug 25, 2022 at 10:25

By Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The City of Grande Prairie will see more boots on the ground with the launch of the Public Security Unit (PSU) pilot project.

The PSU will patrol in priority areas determined to need extra coverage.

“It’s just an additional tool and kind of a multitude of different strategies being deployed,” says Chris Manuel, City of Grande Prairie protective and social services director.

He says the unit is expected to start with about eight members who will be deployed at any given time, 24 hours a day.

“They (PSU) are intended to be a highly visible, proactive presence to interact with the general public, business owners, shops, and try to find problems in their early stages before they become a larger issue,” said Manuel.

The project is launching just weeks after the Grande Prairie Farmers Market made public its concerns about the safety of vendors and patrons.  One resident, Marc Tyler, brought his concerns to city council on Aug. 8.

The total cost of the PSU is $950,000, according to a Dec. 2021 city document. 

Back in January, the city committed $500,000 for one-time project funding from the Future Expenditures Reserve. The remaining $450,000 for the pilot project will come from the enforcement services operating budget.

The project had faced some hurdles before it launched, said Manuel.

“Administration had been exploring adding an additional unit to enforcement services to provide peace officers in that role, but there were some human resources challenges that have limited our ability to do that.”

A local security company will now staff the unit.

“To get it just up and running as quickly as we can at this point, we’re starting with security officers who will be supported with the assistance of some of the peace officers,” said Manuel.

He explained the city is ensuring the security officers will be trained in non-violent crisis intervention, de-escalation, Naloxone, as well as mental health awareness.

Manuel noted that if the pilot project is successful, there may be a consideration to hiring peace officers.

After six months, an assessment will be made on the impact of the program and what adjustments may be needed, said Manuel.

He says the PSU will be an arm of the city’s current mobile outreach program. Outreach will remain centred around client service and engagement, while the PSU will be more of an enforcement-oriented approach, explains Manuel.

Crime has evolved in the city, he notes.

Robberies, homicides and assaults have decreased in Grande Prairie since 2013, which he says were a majority of criminal-on-criminal offences.

Now Grande Prairie is facing more incidents and complaints regarding “lower-end social or criminal behaviours” such as thefts, loitering, and public disturbances, says Manuel.

“One of the hotspot areas that we’re looking to provide that visibility is in the downtown core.”

He said the PSU would be very overt, providing a known presence to the public that policing activities are happening. He noted that some policing in the community, such as the RCMP Crime Reduction Unit, are also around but less visible with non-descript vehicles and do not wear the typical police uniform.

A recent meeting hosted by the Grande Prairie Farmers Market saw concerned citizens and business owners share their grievances and available resources.

Manuel said he understands the frustrations of business owners.

Petty crime challenging to navigate

Still, he notes the justice system is challenging to navigate in instances of petty crime.

He said that major crimes, such as homicide, will see an individual get to prison, while social disorder may be harder to enforce.

“Making people feel unsafe is not a crime.

“We don’t live in a society where the police can pro-actively or pre-emptively stop somebody from many of the offences that we’re talking about.

“Unfortunately, we’re in a place where we have to respond after the fact or try to be present before it occurs, but if we have a pathway where people that are showing a continual pattern of militants towards societies rules, then hopefully we can work with the justice system to at least force them into some form of timeout.”

Manuel noted alternatives are offered to individuals facing addictions and mental health issues; there is a small segment who refuse help.

He hopes programming in the future will be able to go to the courts with a “total picture” for those who have not taken the advantage of existing supports.

 Health care capacity isn’t helping

An additional issue facing the city is the health care capacity for people facing mental health challenges and living homeless.

City coun. Dylan Bressey reminds people that they need to report crimes as it helps shape patrols and strategies moving forward in the future.

“Reporting feels like it doesn’t do much, but I promise it really does do a lot behind the scenes, when people report, we need to know when and where crime is happening.”

He also asked the community to plead to senior levels of government.

“Our police can only do so much if there are no courts that are backing them up.”

Darice Rach, Grande Prairie Farmers Market manager, shared a list of resources available to individuals and businesses at the open meeting Aug. 15.

Local business owner Elaine Mills has faced multiple incidents where she felt her safety was threatened.

Mills says her experiences are not isolated incidents, noting when she talks to other downtown businesses, she hears that they face similar problems. The response from local outreach has been positive.

“We really focused the mandate of these outreach workers, and because they didn’t have all these conflicting priorities, that call that they were receiving was their number one priority,” said Manuel.

This item reprinted with permission from Town & Country News, Beaverlodge, Alberta