Crime is changing on P.E.I., and Charlottetown police are racing to keep up

The ease of international communication is bringing new threats to Prince Edward Island. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
The ease of international communication is bringing new threats to Prince Edward Island. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

The last decade has seen a big shift in crime on P.E.I., from physical to online attacks, and to attacks from abroad — all of which is creating huge challenges for police.

The trends can be seen in reports of incidents to police, reported annually by Statistics Canada, and they can be observed all across the country.

Crime rates on P.E.I. have followed a U-shaped curve since 2010, bottoming out in 2015 before beginning to rise again. But it is a new breed of crime that is causing the increase.

While overall crime rates started rising again in 2015, rates of some crimes continued to fall. Breaking and entering, minor theft, arson and robbery are down double digits.

While the number of incidents is not high yet in some of these crimes, rates are climbing quickly, says criminologist Martin Andresen. (CBC)

"The biggest things we end up seeing here for increases are for criminal harassment, uttering threats, and indecent and harassing messages," said Simon Fraser University criminology professor Martin Andresen.

"We see some fairly big increases. Not huge counts yet, but a lot of increases."

Those three crimes are part of a group of crimes that has seen rates go up in the triple-digit range. That group also includes identity theft and identity fraud, fraud, and extortion.

Fraud is now more common than assault, and indecent and harassing communications are more common than breaking and entering.

Sexual assault stands out as an area where reports of physical violence are up more than the overall rate of violent crime.

Andresen sees a common thread between some of these crimes and a general social trend, one that is international in nature.

"We have seen a lot of increases in toxic masculinity in the past few years, especially stemming from a lot of alternative media, I guess you could call it, out of the United States," he said, pointing the finger in particular at former U.S. president Donald Trump.

"I don't think that he ended up creating anything. He just made it OK for people who ended up having what I would consider very bad social views and actions to be vocal about it."

That general lowering of civility in society, he said, could be a factor in some of these increases.

'Courage behind the keyboard'

Jennifer McCarron, deputy chief of uniformed police services in Charlottetown, sees another common thread in many of these crimes: communication technology.

Reports of harassment and threats are not only up, McCarron said, but the way they are being received has changed.

"Years ago, before phones and all types of social media, harassment was usually by [talking over the] phone or in person," she said.

Now, McCarron said, it's easier to remain anonymous.

"Courage behind the keyboard. People can post messages."

Changing crime trends require time behind the computer as opposed to time on the street, says Charlottetown Police's Deputy Chief Jennifer McCarron. (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

That's part of the change, said McCarron, but the source of those threats, and the rise of extortion and fraud, is also different. It is no longer about Islanders targeting other Islanders. Now, she said, perpetrators targeting Islanders could be virtually anywhere: other provinces, the United States, overseas.

"It's so easy now to hide behind fake profiles and such like that, so it makes it so much more difficult to investigate," said McCarron.

"It seems like the cyber criminals are always one step ahead. They have different ways to bounce off IP addresses. It's extremely complicated, and there's a lot of warrants that have to go into it to get information from some of the social media sites."

That requires a lot more training, she said. The lead officer in the major crime unit, which takes charge of these investigations, spends weeks away every year at conferences and workshops learning all the latest techniques and case law.

But it is difficult to keep up. The major crime unit is just four officers, the same number that was working on the unit in 2015.

"Ideally, it would be nice to have seven or eight in major crimes, investigating all these crimes, but with the climate we're lucky to get enough officers to cover the street most days," said McCarron.

The trouble is, she said, there is still the expectation that officers be out on the street 24/7, and that in itself consumes most of the shifts of the force's 70 officers.

"One bad accident on any day can tie up four officers for hours, and then you're trying to backfill to get officers on the street for the regular day-to-day calls," said McCarron.

Clearance fall dramatically

Those challenges are reflected in clearance rates, the number of cases that are resolved in some way.

Provincially, clearance rates for violent crimes fell from 65 per cent in 2015 to 38 per cent in 2022. A lot of this reflects the more online nature of the new crime trends. Clearance rates for criminal harassment and uttering threats have been cut in half, and for extortion by almost two-thirds.

While police-reported incidents are perhaps the best measure we have for criminal activity, it has its limits.

Generally, only about 30 per cent of crime is reported to police, said Andresen, so it can be difficult to know if an increase in reporting actually represents an increase in crime.

"We don't know if it's coming from that or if it's simply a reporting issue, where people are feeling more comfortable to be reporting these issues to the police," he said.

McCarron believes it is both.

People are getting more educated about when it is appropriate to call the police, she said, such as when they receive an intimate image through email or social media.

"A lot of people before would just maybe delete it and not report it, but now it's getting reported more often," she said.

And people should not be discouraged by low clearance rates, she said. Their experience could be part of a larger picture, she said, and every piece helps put that picture together.