Residents in a rural Manitoba community seeing a spike in crime fear RCMP resources are spread too thin to deal with the problem by themselves – so they are taking matters into their own hands.

Around 130 people packed into the community hall in Vita, Man. on Wednesday night to launch a Citizens on Patrol group. It comes as many residents have grown tired of dealing with what they say are rising cases of theft and break-ins in the area.

"It's frightening," said Alice Rondeau, who has lived in the area for the past 22 years. "The crime rate here is getting to be quite bad, especially in the last couple of weeks. You know, people smashing windows for our businesses, trying to get drugs."

It's a problem Lothar Dueck, who runs the pharmacy in Vita, has experienced first-hand. His store has been broken into several times in the past few years.

"We're always concerned about the safety of everybody – ourselves, our staff, our customers and the community," Dueck said.

He's installed more security around the store and put bars on the windows in an effort to stop the break-ins.

"What can you do? You know, you just have to clean up and go forward and hope you can make the place more secure and safer for everybody."

'There's not enough RCMP officers': Residents fear resources are spread too thin

It's a problem that's been impacting the wider community.

"Crime, unfortunately, is going up and we want to have a way to be able to curb that and to start taking control of our community," said Michelle Gawronsky, the reeve in the Rural Municipality of Stuartburn.

"There's not enough RCMP officers in our province, in our community. We all know that. So we need to do what we have to do to be able to protect our communities."

Speaking at the meeting Wednesday night, Manitoba RCMP Sgt. Stacy Weins said nine officers are based in the Emerson – Morris detachment, which is a 45-minute drive from the community. He said that means officers have to prioritize calls.

"Depending on what those members are doing at the time, that is going to depend on their response time," Weins told residents. "We have a very, very large area."

Sgt. Paul Manaigre, a media relations officer for the Manitoba RCMP, said compliments of members are determined based on call volumes. He said at least three members are on shift at any given time.

"There's considerable distances involved, but like I say, we do have the resources in place and officers will respond."

However, Manitoba's Justice Minister Matt Wiebe said more resources are needed right across the province.

"I will continue to carry that message to Ottawa, to my federal counterparts, that Manitoba needs its fair share of officers and we need them now."

But until that happens, residents in Stuartburn are taking action.

Citizens on Patrol group has curbed 'shenanigans,' neighbouring community says

The community is launching the Citizens on Patrol Program (COPP) – a provincially funded program that trains and equips community residents to patrol their area. They can then document and report any suspicious activities to the local law enforcement.

"This is just an extra boost, an extra set of eyes and ears for our law enforcement and the communities," said Detlef Hindemith, the program administrator for Manitoba COPP.

He said about 40 communities in the province currently are running a Citizens on Patrol group.

Hindemith said patrollers are equipped with high-visibility vests and signage. He said this sends a message to criminals that they are being watched.

"Criminals don't like to be seen, and so when our members are out there being visible… it acts as a deterrent to the criminal activity."

The neighbouring community of Grunthal started a COPP group in December. Residents in that area said they have already noticed a difference.

"There's been a remarkably large decrease in shenanigans," a volunteer for the Grunthal patrol told residents Wednesday.

How Citizens on Patrol help RCMP officers in rural Manitoba

Manaigre said according to RCMP statistics, there has actually been a decrease in crime from 2022 to 2023 in the RM of Stuartburn. When asked why residents feel there has been an increase, Manaigre said there is always a concern that not everything is being reported.

"Perhaps we're not hearing everything," he said. "The important part is having everyone reporting everything to the police so that we can keep accurate statistics and we can investigate those crimes."

That's where the Citizens on Patrol group would help.

Manaigre said the program is 'extremely positive' for the RCMP.

"It's extra eyes and ears, and that's exactly what the police need," he said. "For policing a community, you can't just rely on the officers to solve all the problems. We have to work with the public, because we need that information."

This is actually the third time the RM of Stuartburn is launching a Citizens on Patrol program. Gawronsky said it has been a success in the past, and residents are hoping it will work again.

"There are so many good people in the community, and it's a shame that we have to deal with some people who cause problems," Dueck said. "It'll make our community much safer and a welcoming place for people."

Nearly two dozen residents in the RM of Stuartburn have applied for the program, with patrols expected to begin in the community this spring.