Austin leans on top cops, crime data to make case for more police spending

Public Safety Minister Kris Austin appeared at a news conference with the head of the RCMP in New Brunswick, assistant commissioner DeAnna Hill, and the president of an association of police chiefs for what he called 'an update on crime trends.' (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Public Safety Minister Kris Austin appeared at a news conference with the head of the RCMP in New Brunswick, assistant commissioner DeAnna Hill, and the president of an association of police chiefs for what he called 'an update on crime trends.' (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

Public Safety Minister Kris Austin is leaning on senior law-enforcement officers to back his argument that rising crime rates in the province warrant new spending on policing and on provincial jails.

Austin appeared at a news conference with the head of the RCMP in New Brunswick and the president of an association of police chiefs for what he called "an update on crime trends."

The new minister attracted criticism last month when he said crime data was "not accurately relaying what we're seeing on the ground and his job was "to hear from people. … It's not to just simply go over numbers all the time."

Numbers from the province also showed that provincial jails were not over capacity when the government announced in February that it would build a new jail in the Fredericton area.

On Thursday, Austin said Statistics Canada's crime severity index ranked New Brunswick highest among the Atlantic provinces and said the crime rate in the province has risen 26 per cent in five years while staying flat nationally.

CBC
CBC

"This police-reported data supports what I've been hearing from New Brunswickers and what law enforcement agencies are reporting and seeing to us," Austin said.

But some of the numbers presented Thursday were impossible to compare with the past.

New integrated units make difference, chief says

Woodstock police Chief Gary Forward, president of the New Brunswick Association of Chiefs of Police, said police have made 159 drug seizures and 328 drug-related arrests, and seized $808,000 in cash and 311 weapons, between April 1 and Dec. 1.

Forward said improved communication between police services working through the integrated units "is culminating into a better understanding of the activity that's taking place of a pervasive nature throughout our province."

He said there was no way to compare those numbers to 2021 because the work was done by new integrated drug enforcement units that did not exist last year.

"This is a new initiative," he said, suggesting that it will be better to compare this year's figures to next year's when they are available.

CBC
CBC

The province added $4.3 million to its budget last year for the Safe Communities and Neighbourhoods program and to set up provincial crime reduction units focusing on what it calls "high-level drug crime."

Another $3.3 million was added this year to fund the integrated drug enforcement units that are aimed at mid-level and street-level crime.

Public relations exercise

Jacques LeBlanc, the Liberal Opposition public safety critic, called the news conference a public relations exercise and said the province should be doing more public health briefings on COVID-19 and respiratory viruses instead.

He said he didn't hear enough data to justify the new provincial jail the Higgs government plans for the Fredericton area.

Austin confirmed the new jail is likely to end up being more expensive than the original $32 million because of inflation, though he said he did not have a final figure.

He said his department plans to expand mental health and addiction services available to inmates in all provincial jails.

"We don't want inmates going back out on the streets and committing the same crimes. So what can we do while they're in our custody to give them all the tools that they can have, so when they get out they can be productive citizens of society?"

Austin said crimes that are on the rise include property crimes, vehicle thefts and break-ins. At the same time, he said,  homicides, robberies and arsons are going down.

RCMP
RCMP

In 2021 the Higgs government forced out the head of the RCMP's J Division in New Brunswick, assistant commissioner Larry Tremblay, claiming he was unwilling to "drive significant change" in policing in the province.

Ted Flemming, the public safety minister at the time, said then that the province wanted more action on drug crime. "We want to declare war on these people."

Tremblay's successor, assistant commissioner DeAnna Hill, said Thursday she has toured the province to "absorb questions about dissatisfaction" with the RCMP.

"My focus has been on: what are we doing not as well as we should? What are we doing outstanding? What do I need to do for our membership? They are overworked and stressed."

She and Austin both said people are satisfied with the RCMP officers they deal with, but feel there aren't enough of them.