Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Crime statistics tend to distort safety in The Pas

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THE PAS - Dave Brauer used to see it all too often in his neighbourhood.

Drug deals, out in the open and void of subtlety, were emblematic of the serious crime plaguing this proud forestry town.

"I hardly ever see anything like that now," Brauer says.

Brauer, a towering Baptist pastor, isn't alone in noticing such improvements. Potent efforts to foster increased law and order here have been bearing fruit.

As CBC recently reported, Mounties have fielded 200 fewer criminal reports this year compared to the same time last year in The Pas and its neighbouring reserve of Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN).

While the two communities (one, really) and their 8,300 citizens still face challenges, there is no denying the atmosphere here is one of greater security.

"I feel the town's a lot safer now than it's ever been," says Ken Gurba, a councillor who chairs the town's protective services committee.

Gurba gives ample credit to the RCMP, whose arrests of a few key individuals have had remarkably broad reverberations.

"You can see small impacts can make a major difference," says Gurba, a paramedic by profession.

Other residents point to proactive measures taken over the past decade by elected officials in The Pas and OCN.

The town has barred known gang members from entering public places, such as bars, while the reserve banishes those same individuals.

The difference has been palpable in a community that police say had become a provincial hub for the Indian Posse, one of Manitoba's largest aboriginal gangs.

"I haven't heard a whole lot about the gang issue (lately)," says Brauer, a 13-year resident. "So it sounds like things are happening in terms of law enforcement."

But on paper at least, the century-old "Gateway to the North" may be a long way from shedding its crime-ridden reputation.

The overall per-capita crime rate in The Pas (OCN excluded) increased in all but one year between 2007 and 2011. And violent crime in 2011 was higher than in 2010, which in turn was higher than in 2009.

Overall crime in The Pas is typically above that of Thompson, whose crime problems are notorious throughout the North, though its violent crime rate is still lower.

But Gurba, an articulate, onion-layer-peeler kind of man, says the raw stats demand context.

Many crimes can often be traced to a lone individual rather than a large group of offenders. And even a crime categorized as "gang activity" can be something as meagre as a 14-year-old taking a can of spraypaint to a building.

Gurba says violent crime in The Pas also tends to lack the frightening randomness apparent in big cities like Winnipeg.

The grievances he hears today relate not so much to violence and gangs as to the sorts of annoyances many small towns must endure.

"(People) are not complaining that they're being held up in an armed robbery," Gurba says. "They're complaining that there are drunks hanging around the downtown in the business area."

Those are the type of offences Brauer has been observing, but he wonders whether gang-related activity such as drug dealing has simply gone further underground, shielded from public and law-enforcement view.

Time may tell whether that is the case, but in any event The Pas is not about to rest on its laurels.

Gurba notes the town is acquiring an additional RCMP officer and has held talks about peace officers to patrol the downtown core.

Town council has also been implementing environmental design strategies, such as increased lighting along a popular walkway, to bolster safety.

Brauer welcomes any and all improvements, but for him The Pas is already a wonderful place to call home.

"I feel very safe here," he says. "I walk everywhere all the time."

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2012 A15

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