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Fort McMurray gets boost in police ranks to fight drugs, organized crime

A shooting victim is carried from a home to waiting rescue workers in Fort McMurray, Alta., on June 26, 2008. The area is getting an increase in police officers to handle its crime level.

Carl Patzel/The Canadian Press

Faced with a booming drug trade and a pair of violent murders earlier this year, city and provincial officials have dispatched a throng of new police officers to oil-rich Fort McMurray.

An addition of 21 Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers was announced in the northern city Tuesday. The majority are veteran officers from other regions of Alberta who will tackle organized crime.

"Fort McMurray has certainly become an issue of concern ... it's on our priority list," said Frank Oberle, Alberta's Solicitor-General.

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The new officers represent a 15-per-cent spike in police numbers in the region.

"This is a marked increase," said Superintendent Kirke Hopkins, head of the Fort McMurray RCMP detachment. "It'll allow us to focus on the organized crime activity that's occurring around Fort McMurray."

Home to Alberta's oil-sands projects, Fort McMurray and its surrounding region, Wood Buffalo, have seen their crime rate vary wildly over the past decade's economic boom, driven by a young population flush with cash and drug dealers looking to capitalize. Supt. Hopkins said most dealers are coming from the Toronto area, and cocaine is the community's drug of choice.

The majority of the new officers will work for the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT), a multi-agency law-enforcement unit. Though such squads target a number of crimes, Fort McMurray's will deal with organized crime and drugs, specifically.

"There's certainly a very vibrant and lucrative drug trade going on," said ALERT Inspector Bob Simmonds, who will head up the new Fort McMurray effort. He has also overseen the creation of an ALERT team in Medicine Hat, where he believes it has led to a reduction in organized crime. Edmonton and Calgary also have squads.

"I have every reason to expect we'll have similar success up in Fort McMurray," Insp. Simmonds said.

The new officers are in three groups. Thirteen are part of the new ALERT organized-crime team. Another five officers are ALERT intelligence officers, while three were provided as part of a pledge by Premier Ed Stelmach to add 300 officers provincewide by next year.

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The province paid for 13 officers, while the wealthy municipality paid for eight.

"It's part of our long-term commitment to safe communities," Mr. Stelmach said.

The influx brings the number of RCMP officers in the labour-starved region to about 185, and its police-to-citizens ratio (1 officer per 556 citizens) in line with Statistics Canada numbers for Edmonton (1 per 546), Medicine Hat (1 per 550), and ahead of Calgary (1 per 628).

The provincial average last year was 594 citizens per officer.

"It's a far cry over what we had before," Mayor Melissa Blake said. "I expect we'll see some serious results."

Supt. Hopkins cited the area's drug activity and the February slaying of two young Somali-Canadian men as examples of the need for officers to fight organized crime.

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The provincial Somali-Canadian community had called for a task force to investigate the two slayings and others provincewide. Insp. Simmonds said the new officers won't be focusing on the issue specifically, but the broader drug trade.

Despite the increase in his ranks, Supt. Hopkins feels his community gets unfairly portrayed as a high-crime area.

"Is it more dangerous than any other average city in Canada? I don't believe so," the officer said.

With a report from Stephanie Chambers

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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