The province has announced the creation of a new Protection and Response Team to help fight crime in rural Saskatchewan.

The team will consist of 258 armed officers with arrest and detention powers, including:

  • 120 police officers from RCMP and municipal police services
  • 60 police positions currently deployed to the Combined Traffic Services Saskatchewan Initiative
  • 30 new police positions and 30 repurposed police positions currently funded by the Ministry of Justice

In addition, 40 highway commercial vehicle enforcement officers will be armed and, along with conservation officers who already carry guns, will be able to respond to calls and make arrests.

That means conservation officers could be called to break and enters if they were closer to the scene than the RCMP.

"They also deal with people that have firearms, more often than not, and have very similar training," said Dale McPhee, deputy minister of Corrections and policing.

"What we're trying to do is, we're going to sit down and make sure that standard response training is the same so we can get a first car there. Police officers ... actually don't necessarily run into those environments, what they do is they assess the situation based on their training, just as (conservation officers) would taking a firearms call with somebody in the bush."

According to a government news release, all team members will receive a comprehensive training curriculum, which will be provided to all officers regardless of their designations. The team expands on the successes of blended policing models to:

  • Improve police response to emergency calls for services, including property crimes that are in progress
  • Enhance uniform visibility and presence in rural Saskatchewan
  • Increase the enforcement of drug trafficking on Saskatchewan’s roadways
  •  Enhance the safety of Saskatchewan roads by reducing the number of serious collisions and fatalities

The team is being created in response to recommendations by the Caucus Committee on Crime.

People around Saskatchewan were voicing concerns after a story emerged last September that three masked suspects armed with handguns allegedly approached a farmhand in west-central Saskatchewan.

Shortly after, there were media reports of farmers carrying firearms during harvest. RCMP then urged people not to take the law into their own hands.

The committee's report, which was also released Tuesday, said there were concerns about police in every region of the province.

"Citizens did not feel as if the RCMP were visible enough in their community to deter crime and that, in some cases, their slow response times allowed the criminal to get away," the report stated.

The report said rural residents are responding to growing crimes rates "by defending themselves in any way they feel necessary."

"This has led to rural residents carrying firearms in some cases, using their vehicles to push perpetrator's vehicles out of their yards, and have led to an increase in tensions between rural residents, surrounding First Nations, and police," it stated.

Justice Minister Gordon Wyant said the government would help people crime-proof their properties, perhaps through technology such as cameras.

Rebuilding a rural crime watch program would help too, he said.

"It was a while ago, you know, farms were a lot smaller than they are today and neighbours could keep an eye on their neighbours, and that's not the case anymore. Farms are much larger and neighbours don't have an opportunity to do that," said Wyant.

"So, what solutions can be brought to that, how can we enable the revitalization of a crime-watch program in areas and municipalities that want that?"

Ray Orb, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, said the measures announced Tuesday were a beginning.

"We wanted, for sure, to have more RCMP officers on the ground. We wanted to have a greater visibility of officers in the province in the rural areas," Orb said after the announcement.

"So I think what we've been promised today, we're not necessarily getting more officers, but we're getting more visibility. We're getting shorter response times, which I think is something that we really need in rural Saskatchewan."

Drug and alcohol use were cited as factors contributing to the growing crime rates. For example, Regina police told the committee that incidences of crystal meth increased 1,325 per cent from 2012 to 2016.

The committee also heard concerns that the federal Youth Criminal Justice Act was not stopping youth from committing crimes.

"In some cases, family, friends, and gangs were encouraging youth to commit crimes on their behalf because they knew that the youth would not suffer as severe repercussions if caught," said the report.

Wyant said Saskatchewan will request a review of the act with the aim of increased consequences for young offenders and adults who enable young people to commit crimes, and for greater rehabilitation.

Saskatchewan will also push for a western Canada Aboriginal gang strategy when justice ministers from across Canada meet next month, he said.

With files from The Canadian Press