COVID-19 shutdowns to training facilities cited as one factor
By Jaymie White
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
BURGEO – For over two years, the town of Burgeo has been without a permanent police presence and has no officers stationed at the local detachment.
The current methods in place, which include pro-active patrols and patrols in response to calls, remain the only form of policing currently seen in Burgeo, something that Steven Hiscock, Program Director at Burgeo Broadcasting System says is not enough, especially considering the distance police officers have to travel once they are called.
“The people of Burgeo, we are not used to any major crimes, but what if something does happen,” says Hiscock. “For example, if someone dies in their home, they’ve gotta be left where they are until the RCMP comes. If the RCMP can’t make it for four hours, the family has to wait for four hours with that person in their house until the police arrive. And the RCMP in Burgeo also polices Ramea, Grey River, and François. That’s three other communities as well on the coast of Burgeo, not just Burgeo.”
MHA Andrew Parsons (Burgeo – LaPoile) said this issue has been at the forefront of many conversations, and while some progress has been made, not seeing police officers in Burgeo is a concern.
“There are two sides of it. I can say I’ve had multiple conversations with the RCMP and with the Department of Justice and with the Town, working on some proactive solutions to policing in the absence of officers at the detachment, and on the other side I’m disappointed that we have not managed to get officers there even though I was promised two years ago that they would be en route. We keep advocating for it. As a province, we’ve actually increased the investment to the RCMP in the last budget for this very purpose of getting more officers. Basically, the costs for RCMP have gone up. They recently unionized, so there were bigger contractual obligations that were required, but we ponied up as a province. So now I want to see some officers here and I don’t think there is any reason not to.”
Currently the Bay St. George detachment, located approximately 2.5 hours away in Stephenville, is tasked with supplying officers for patrolling Burgeo, which guarantees there will be a significant wait time for response.
Parsons said the detachment has been very good and easy to contact, and it’s about working with them for the time being, to ensure the needs of the community are met.
“One of the sad realities of rural Newfoundland and Labrador is that it’s hard to have immediate coverage everywhere. I dealt with that when I was the minister of that department. We just have so much ground to cover. I’m really thankful that the district I live in and represent has a generally lower crime rate than other areas, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want a timely response.”
Parsons said one of the things they worked with the Bay St. George detachment on was trying to make their patrols more random.
“For Burgeo, for example, I said, ‘Look, if you’re going to send a couple of people down on a Wednesday afternoon, you’re probably not going to see a whole lot. Maybe switch it up so people aren’t going to be aware when you’re coming. Come down in the evening or overnight visit, things like that.’ This is not a new issue. I’ve dealt with this years ago. We want to get a faster response, but this comes down to triage at the detachment level.”
Parsons said this issue is something that is not just affecting Burgeo, but thousands of communities across the entire country.
“I don’t think Burgeo is an isolated situation. I’ve heard from other communities when I was the minister (Justice and Public Safety), and I know this goes on in other provinces. We do always face challenges with recruitment and transferring of officers has always been difficult, but it may seem a bit more noticeable now in this day and age. To think that it’s a Southwest coast specific issue – absolutely not. I used to always say, when I was the minister, that I’ve never heard from a community that said, ‘Yes. We’re good on police. We have enough.’ Every community always wants an increased police presence.”
Parsons said the impact of COVID-19 is a major factor that affected RCMP recruitment.
“When you have a disruption like that, it has an affect, but the other side of it is that we’re getting past that. We should be past that, and hopefully we’re soon going to see these officers getting turned out and getting out to those areas.”
Parsons said people want to be able to have the security and comfort that a police presence provides.
“People want to feel like they have police coverage in their area. That’s not going to change. People want that feeling. People are happy to have police presence.”
In response to email inquiries, the RCMP issued the following statement:
“The RCMP continually examines and analyzes what we do and how we do it, to remain effective and efficient in providing a quality police service to communities in our province.
“Burgeo has been policed through pro-active patrols, as well as patrols in response to calls, from Stephenville since October 2020. Police aim to do 3-4 proactive patrols per month which can include overnight patrols, plus any additional patrols necessary for response to calls. In addition, Burgeo, if required, would also be supported by police officers within specialized units including Police Dog Services, Traffic Services, General Investigation Section, Major Crime Unit, and Forensic Identification Services, among others.
“The District Commander for the Bay St. George District has open communication and regular liaison with the Burgeo mayor and town manager, to assess the town’s policing needs and ensure appropriate response.
“The RCMP here and elsewhere in Canada is experiencing pressures in having police officers available due to the impacts of COVID-19, primarily surrounding the shutdown of training at our Training Academy in Regina during the height of the pandemic. While the number of cadets being trained is easing back toward normal levels, human resources impacts continue to be felt.
“The safety of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians is of the utmost importance, and we remain focused on recruiting and staffing positions throughout the province based on operational needs.”
Mayor Brian Button said the Town of Port aux Basques has had an ongoing dialogue with the RCMP, and numerous federal and provincial government representatives to discuss the lower police presence.
“We’ve been saying we think we should have more members to cover the geographical area that we have here, especially from South Branch to Rose Blanche and making sure that we have the presence in our area to keep the crime rates down. If they’re looking at ways of using that funding (from Budget 2022) and putting it out, we think communities such as ourselves in rural Newfoundland and Burgeo as well, would be communities where you need a police presence.”
Button said there has been a steady decline over the last number of years, which is very concerning to the communities in the region.
“A lot of times these things are done on statistics and the statistics show that the crime rates here probably don’t warrant the higher numbers, but our argument with that always is, if you decline the numbers, possible those statistics are going to go up. We hope they don’t, but they could with the lack of presence.”
Button said the desire for new members in no way reflects the work of the officers currently stationed in the area.
“We’ve got to look after the workforce that they have and having less members puts more stress on the members that are there, so, it’s about their health and wellbeing as well that we’re concerned with.”