NWT crime figures at five-year low, justice officials cautious

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Crime in the Northwest Territories has dropped to its lowest level in five years, according to Statistics Canada figures based on police reports.

Data for 2014, published on Wednesday, shows police dealt with 20,409 incidents last year – down from 21,252 in 2013 and the lowest figure since 2009. In that five-year span the territory’s population increased by around 650 people.

The severity of crime in the NWT has also reportedly decreased.

The territory’s Department of Justice said it embraced the figures with caution.

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In full: Police-reported crime in 2014 – Statistics Canada

“It’s hard to draw conclusions that would specifically guide us in our day-to-day work,” deputy minister of justice Sylvia Haener told Moose FM. “But the report does tell us we are focusing on the right things.

“We are seeing a decrease in the numbers in our correctional facilities. It’s hard to say whether that’s going to be sustained over time.

“We really have to look at things longer-term and for us, we’re interested in trying to get the entire picture of the justice system – not just police-reported crime but what’s happening in the courts and in our correctional facilities.”

Statistics Canada uses a Police Reported Crime Severity Index (PRCSI) to measure changes in levels of severe crime. The index weights crimes according to severity, which produces a final figure.

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In the NWT, that figure fell from 315 to 290 in 2014. That’s the lowest since the territory scored 260 in 2001.

“Both the police-reported crime severity index and crime rate declined in most of the provinces and territories in 2014,” read Statistics Canada’s summary.

“Among the provinces and territories that recorded a decline in the crime severity index, fewer incidents of breaking and entering largely contributed to the decrease.”

Crime incidents in the NWT, 2009-2014

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Yukon’s crime severity index rose to 190, an increase attributed to homicides in the territory, but that figure is still well below the NWT. Nunavut scored 272, meaning the NWT remains home to the most severe crime in Canada – statistically – despite its own figure falling. The national Canadian crime severity index for 2014 was 67.

Statistics Canada’s figures go into considerable detail regarding the types of crime handled by police in 2014.

For example, fewer incidents involving young perpetrators took place in 2014 than in any other year since 2001. Sexual assault incidents, having been stable at between 170-190 per year since 2008, dropped to 146. Ten aggravated assault incidents were reported, the lowest annual figure since the NWT and Nunavut parted ways.

As identified by Statistics Canada in its summary, break-and-enter incidents were down to 463 in 2014, by far the lowest figure in the territory so far this century.

By contrast, there were 607 such incidents in 2013. In each of 2003, 2004 and 2005 there were more than 1,000 entries related to break-and-enters per year.

Drug violations may be at the fore of residents’ thinking in light of recent arrests involving the BC-based 856 gang – which was active in Yellowknife throughout 2014.

There were 491 recorded incidents related to drug violations in the NWT last year, the lowest number since 2007. They resulted in 121 people being charged.

Drug-related incidents in the NWT, 2009-2014

“It’s hard to pinpoint why things are changing the way they are,” said Haener, who has been in her post for three years.

“You can’t draw a direct line between what the numbers are saying and a cause for those lower numbers. There are many things that come into play.”

Haener told us her department preferred to track its performance by following up directly with participants in programs, and measuring diversions – instances in which RCMP members are able to keep accused individuals out of the court system.

“Look, for example, at Domestic Violence Treatment Option court,” said Haener. “We would look at that in isolation and ask the participants, ‘Has this made a difference for you?’ We would track them over time – have they come back into court due to family violence issues or not?

“We look at specific things we’re doing to see if they’re working. It’s our belief that, if they are, they are helping to contribute to decreased numbers overall.

“Diversions are definitely something we monitor and take a close look at – when a crime occurs and the RCMP can almost immediately divert that away from court to a community justice committee for consideration. Keeping people out of court is important and it prevents future crime from occurring; it allows communities to be involved in the justice system.”

RCMP Constable Elenore Sturko, who’s based in Yellowknife, also took a circumspect approach to the lower crime figures.

“The statistics are saying that, but whether or not you can actually say that would take a lot more analysis and work,” Sturko told us.

“It takes lots of different factors to reduce crime: the community itself buying into crime reduction programs, education, attitude, working with health and social services. Now, when I visit communities, I really see a lot of healthy changes and great lifestyle changes that have been made. A lot of times we see a focus on some of the negative aspects – drinking in communities, things like that – but there’s so much that’s positive going on.

“As a police officer, seeing that there’s an opportunity I guess for healing within these systems goes a long way to preventing a reoccurrence of crime. When an accused person has a chance to see, on a very personal level, the effects their activity has had on their community, their family and loved ones, that healing process can take place.

“As long as we keep doing that type of activity, hopefully we can continue this downward trend.”

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