Lethbridge hopes to cut drugs, crime in new year

·4 min read

Lethbridge has long been known for the strong winds that blow through the city — its junior hockey team is called the Hurricanes, after all.

But these days, the southern Alberta community has a reputation for something else: drugs and crime.

Statistics Canada reported in the fall that Lethbridge had topped Canada's Crime Severity Index, and the city continues to struggle with a surge in IV drug use. Before it closed, the city's supervised consumption site was the busiest in Canada.

Lethbridge's Mayor Chris Spearman says the two problems are interconnected and that drugs are the key reason the city leads the country in crime severity again.

"They weren't necessarily violent crimes but they were drug-related crimes," he says.

The mayor points out his city had just two murders this year, after having none the previous two years.

Spearman says the increase in crime in his city is due to more people who previously abused alcohol becoming hooked on methamphetamine and opiates. He says the city has been asking for years for more resources to address the growing problem.

Lucie Edwardson / CBC News
Lucie Edwardson / CBC News

"We have been asking since 2014 for intox centres, detox centres and supported housing to deal with this."

Most recently, the city was promised more than $11 million in funding for supported housing but the spaces have yet to materialize, Spearman says.

"The government is emphasizing recovery but the problem is that while funds have been announced, we haven't really had a lot of new services put in place."

In the meantime, Spearman says, local police have launched a crime suppression team focused on drug offences in an attempt to bring crime rates down. The mayor also points to other initiatives by local law enforcement aimed at helping addicts and homeless people access resources.

Among those initiatives are the The Watch, which has volunteers patrolling the streets to provide first aid and other help to vulnerable people, and the PACT (Police and Crisis Team), which teams a health-care worker up with a police officer to respond to drug related and mental health issues.

Sarah Rieger/CBC
Sarah Rieger/CBC

Jeff Cove worked as a police officer in Lethbridge for nearly 30 years before taking over management of The Watch.

"I like to say that we are the social arm of the police service," he says.

Cove says the programs help free up the police to deal with other crimes by "providing social outreach on behalf of the police, finding ways to keep people who are disadvantaged off the police radar."

Lethbridge police are also the first in Canada to begin training officers to police each other, through the Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement, or ABLE program. Cove says the ethical police training is designed to encourage officers to intervene before other members of the force hurt someone.

"You are actually doing me a favour by intervening by saving me from myself based on those kinds of things, and that is what the program is all about," Cove says.

Those efforts didn't stop nearly 1,000 people from protesting outside Lethbridge City Hall in June. It was part of the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that swept across North America, demanding change in how policing is done.

Tim Slaney believes Lethbridge's drug and crime problems could be better addressed without the police. Slaney, who is with the Lethbridge Overdose Prevention Society, helped run a make-shift supervised injection site in a tent this fall.

"There are only a handful of times that I have seen someone arrested and walked away from that thinking that society was made any safer," he says.

Bryan Labby/CBC
Bryan Labby/CBC

Slaney, who is a recovering addict himself, had worked at ARCHES, the supervised consumption site that was North America's busiest when it closed, following allegations of financial mismanagement. After an investigation, no charges were laid.

At its height, around 200 people used ARCHES, which had as many as 700 visits per day.

A mobile consumption site does still operate in the city, but Slaney says it isn't enough. He says that since ARCHES closed, overdoses have shot up in and around Lethbridge, including on the nearby Blood Reserve.

"A lot of these people are people I used to use with. I mean, you go back three to four years and that would have been me," he says.

The overdose Prevention Society is in the process of applying for another supervised consumption site that Slaney hopes will be up and running soon. He says that the first step in curbing drug related crime is simple: "decriminalize the drugs" and provide more supports for people who use them.

Prof. Irvin Waller of the University of Ottawa says Slaney may be on to something. Waller says there is a clear link between drugs, social inequality and crime, and that if you lower one, the others will likely follow.

"Higher crime rates correlate very tightly with socio-demographic data," he says.

Waller says doing that involves investing in social services.

"If you haven't put the equivalent of 10 per cent of what you are spending on reaction into prevention, you are not going to have a significant impact."

Finding the money to do that in the new year could be a challenge. The city agreed to slash its police budget by $1 million earlier this month.