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Editorial: Crime units too vulnerable

Dec 06 2012

Saanich's decision to join the Vancouver Island Integrated Major Crime Unit next year underscores the value of integrated units in solving crimes.

Unfortunately, the changing makeup of those units also underscores how fragile they are.

Mayor Frank Leonard announced this week that his municipality's force will add three officers and one support person to the major-crime unit, which will cost Saanich about $400,000. It will also hire new staff to replace those who are seconded, reinforcing the force's commitment. Oak Bay comes along for the ride because it contracts its major investigations to Saanich.

The major-crime unit has served the region well, bringing expertise and resources that can't be matched by individual departments. It is made up of 18 officers, including six from Victoria, two from West Shore RCMP and 10 from Island RCMP detachments.

Its most visible success was in solving the murder of Kimberly Proctor. Almost immediately after her horrific killing was discovered, the unit pulled in 50 officers from the Island and the Mainland. Two teenage boys were convicted of the slaying.

Like the other integrated units, the major-crime office was created to tackle crimes that require special skills, need added police resources or cross municipal boundaries.

While all those sound like good reasons for amalgamation of departments, Leonard said Saanich remains opposed to unification, stressing his department's commitment to the major-crime, regional-crime and domestic-violence units. The success of those, Saanich argues, makes amalgamation unnecessary.

However, the fact that Saanich stayed out of VIIMCU for five years, and Victoria's decisions to pull out of the regional-crime unit and the domestic-violence unit, tell a different story.

Victoria withdrew from the regional-crime unit in 2009, saying it could not afford the four officers and $500,000 in other costs. This year, it pulled one of its two officers from the domestic-violence unit because chief Jamie Graham said his department needed more resources to investigate crimes within its borders.

Yet these two units are arguably even better examples of the need for co-operation than is the major-crime unit. VIIMCU primarily offers resources and expertise. The regional-crime and domestic-violence units were set up because criminals don't pay any attention to municipal boundaries.

The regional-crime team targets the small number of prolific offenders who commit a disproportionate number of the burglaries and other thefts in Greater Victoria. The domestic unit was set up after the Peter Lee murder-suicide, when poor communication among police forces, prosecutors and other agencies contributed to Lee being able to kill his family and then himself.

In withdrawing, Victoria made decisions that were sensible from its point of view. For years, Saanich made a similar judgment in staying out of the major-crime unit. Their focus was on their own jurisdictions.

It is clear, however, that all those units work better in fulfilling their missions if every local police department is included. Their effectiveness is the major argument put forward by police chiefs who say that amalgamation is not necessary.

If the units are constantly at the mercy of changing priorities and financial conditions in member departments, they will never be able to do what we expect them to do: prevent serious crimes, and catch criminals no matter where they live or where they commit their crimes.

The vulnerability of the regional units is another argument for amalgamation of departments.

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