Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods teams identify illegal activity on problem properties

What would you do if you didn’t feel safe in your own community?

This was the reality for residents of Penbrooke Meadows for years but on March 30 all of that changed, said Glenn Stuart, investigator for Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods, more commonly known as SCAN.

Activities at a southeast Calgary home were investigated for more than a year as a result of multiple complaints from people concerned about the use and abuse of the property, said SCAN researcher Craig Cuthbert.

The SCAN team was able to confirm that there were indeed drug and prostitution activities taking place, added Stuart. That combined with video and picture surveillance of money transactions helped to build the Community Safety Order, which is the legal basis for closing down a property. On March 30, the property was fenced-in and boarded-up for 90 days.

What is SCAN?

SCAN is a provincial program that was established in 2008 when the SCAN Act was made law by the Alberta government. Investigations began shortly after.

SCAN’s mandate aims to ensure community safety. This means receiving anonymous tips from community members or police, and investigating properties that could pose a threat to the safety or standard of living of people within those communities. Often times that threat comes in the form of drug activity, alcohol abuse, prostitution, and sexual abuse or gang activity.

“If you’re living beside one of these places, it’s got to be a nightmare,” Stuart said. “We’re just given the evidence that we see. We only work 35 hours a week and we’re not on the house 35 hours a week. That’s not the way it works. But these people have to live beside this.”One of the SCAN sheriffs looks at the scene.
Photo by: April Lamb

There are two SCAN teams in Alberta: one north, based out of Edmonton, and one south, based out of Calgary. The south team encompasses any area including and south of Red Deer, said Craig Cuthbert, an analyst on the south team.

He said that most investigators have had previous experience in law enforcement at different levels and have been specially trained on the legislation pertaining to SCAN, having also taken advanced surveillance courses.

SCAN’S mandate

The sheriffs on these SCAN teams often do the same work as police officers, but their level of authority is different, he added.

“[The SCAN Act] uses civil law versus criminal law for its process. We go to civil court, not criminal court,” he said.

“We don’t worry so much about the people but the property. Our focus is on the property that’s being used to support the criminal activity, while mainstream police are looking after the people to charge them under the criminal code or Controlled Drug and Substances Act.”

SCAN and the Calgary Police Service work together in order to achieve their goals, said Const. Paul Cuthill, community liaison officer for District 4 in Calgary.

“The way the system is set up at the moment is [SCAN] has to receive a call from a member of the public,” said Cuthill. “I think the city’s very mindful that they are not just another asset for the Calgary Police Service. They’re there to support the community – Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods – that’s their mandate and they want to be seen as helping the public.”

Cuthill added that the police and SCAN do have a very good relationship. The units work under surveillance to confirm the observations of neighbours, community members, or the police themselves. Often times they will then pass that information on to the police for them to use in targeting the criminal activity, Stuart said.

The process

After the complaints have been confirmed, SCAN units go through three steps in order to resolve the issues at the problem properties.

First, they issue a verbal warning to the owners. As more than 80 per cent of their investigations involve rental properties, that often means making the owners aware that there even is an issue, Cuthbert said.

If no change in behaviour is seen, a formal notice then is issued from a director of law enforcement, he said.A construction worker boards up a window on one of the problem houses.
Photo by: April Lamb

“It says to cease and desist or we will take further action,” Cuthbert added.

That further action is called a Community Safety Order, also referred to as a CSO. It is attained through the Court of Queen’s Bench and is capable of shutting down a property for 90 days. This means evicting the residents, boarding up the house and building a fence around it, said Stuart.

A CSO is only attained after intensive surveillance and information is gathered on a problem property by SCAN. An affidavit is put together for the courts, including legal information about the property, complaints lodged, police history, criminal records and other relevant evidence pertaining to the case, Stuart said.

“It’s not our goal to take people’s houses away. It’s not our mandate; it’s a last resort,” he said. “We want to work with the owners and try to resolve the problem without having to go to the Court of Queen’s Bench to resolve it. It’s a hell of a penalty, if you think about it, to have your house taken away for 90 days.”

And their statistics support their mandate. The south unit has received 638 complaints since SCAN’s establishment in 2008. Close to 600 of those were resolved informally, without having to go to court, with only seven CSOs having to be delivered to shut down houses, three of those in Calgary, Cuthbert said.

When the sheriffs get to the point of having to deliver a CSO, as in the case of Penbrooke Meadows, the police will most often accompany them to act as a physical presence, Cuthill said.

“When they’re going there, they’re telling people, ‘By the way, we’re trying to close your house. If you don’t stop, we’ll have people come in, we’re going to shut your house and you’ll have nowhere to live,’ so people normally get a little bit annoyed,” he said.

The rewards

While it isn’t their directive to shut down houses, it can be rewarding when the results of their investigative labour begin to bear fruit, especially for the neighbours, Stuart said.

On one occasion after a CSO had been delivered and the fence put up, Stuart said that community members were openly showing their gratitude.

“We were out there and the neighbours were driving by,” he said. “They were blowing their horns, they were clapping, and some stopped and thanked us. That’s the kind of response we got.

“A lot of the complainants we deal with are pretty happy at the end. The real bad [cases] are kind of easy for us. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. But if you put the time in and you deal with the landlords and things like that, it’s much appreciated by people, which makes it really nice for us too because it makes the job really satisfying.”

lhallet@cjournal.ca