It wasn't the smoothest of sailing when Alberta's Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods (SCAN) Act was initiated in 2008 but over the years, the program has developed a seamless relationship with its police partners.
The Alberta program is one of the models for the Safer Communities Act introduced in B.C. by Justice Minister and Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond on Feb. 21.
"This legislation is about giving people a simple, timely, safe way to report properties of concern and help make their streets safer," Bond said. "Obviously, we still want people to report criminal activity to the police. But sometimes, for a variety of reasons, even if police do make arrests, problems just continue at a particular address."
The B.C. legislation is still in its early stages - with the proposed unit's resources, structure, regulations and policies still under development - but its main thrust will target the sites of specific criminal and nuisance activities such as drug production and trafficking, prostitution, unlawful liquor sales, child abuse, possession of illegal weapons or explosives and activities conducted by or on behalf of gangs and organized crime.
Similar legislation also exists in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Yukon.
"When the legislation was first introduced, [the police] didn't know what to make of it. How does SCAN fit in? Are they coming into our territory and taking over what we do here in drug investigation?" explained Insp. Chip Sawchuk, manager of the SCAN unit responsible for the northern Alberta. "The best way to describe it is that we work hand in hand with the police to work on these problem properties."
According to the B.C. ministry, if the Community Safety Act is passed it will enable people to submit confidential complaints to a new provincial unit "charged with investigating, mediating and working with property owners to curb various threatening and dangerous activities."
A team of seven investigators in Alberta's northern unit take in those complaints, but they deal more with the property as opposed to the people causing the problems.
"Say we were to find a property where we're thinking there's drug trafficking going on. We would go there and gather a bunch of intelligence," Sawchuk said. That information would be used to determine if the activity is habitual in nature and if it's affecting the surrounding community.
The first step to remedy the problem is to send a warning letter to the property owner. If the owner was unaware of the activity, they can then take steps to remove the tenants causing the problem from the property. But if the owner is the one causing the problem, the letter is often enough to put an end to the issue as well.
"If the owner is the one dealing, they have the ability to stop that on their property. In most cases they do because they know we're watching or the police are watching," Sawchuk said.
However, if the problem persists, the unit has the ability to go to the courts and obtain a community safety order, where a judge can recommend a variety of remedies from terminating the tenancy to ordering the property closed for up to 90 days.
But just because a property is dealt with, doesn't mean that's the end of the line. The Alberta unit also offers their gathered intelligence on the occupants to police.
"The police, if they like, they may decide based on our information, to do a warrant, decide to stop leaving leaving to see if they have drugs," Sawchuk said. "The police don't have the resources or the time to put into sitting on a house that's affecting a community or a neighbour."
Locally, that lack of resources for special projects is a familiar refrain.
In a recent report to council regarding their budget, Prince George RCMP Supt. Eric Stubbs outlined three specialized sections the detachment has created to address chronic issues - Youth at Risk Team, Downtown Enforcement Unit and the Domestic Violence Unit - but stressed the lack of funds to carry these programs out.
"They are made up of a total of five members that are staffed by taking resources from our general duty watches and other sections within the detachment," he wrote. "This creates an increased workload for the units and watches that have lost members to these new initiatives."
Sawchuk said he could see the program being of some benefit to British Columbians, especially given that marijuana grow operations are a larger problem in this province.
"Fire hazards are huge to those neighbourhoods," he said.
The confidentiality aspect is a huge boon to the program, which gets upwards of 300 complaints filed every year.
Sawchuk, who had nearly three decades of policing experience before moving to look after the SCAN program, knew that neighbours were less likely to report problem properties out of fear of retribution.
"In Alberta, the complainant information is confidential. We cannot release the complainants name to anybody [including police]," he said. "Maybe the little old lady who lives down the block, the last thing she wants to do is report these drug dealers if she thinks she has to go to court."