NEWS

Williams Lake, B.C. Passes Motion On High-Risk Offenders

02/25/2016 03:09 EST | Updated 02/26/2016 08:59 EST

CORRECTION — Feb. 26, 2016: The Canadian Press erroneously reported on Feb. 25 that city council in Williams Lake, B.C., voted to implant GPS trackers in high-risk and prolific offenders, In fact, the motion passed by council made no mention of implanting a device but a councillor did express his support for the idea.

VANCOUVER — A British Columbia community wants to take the extraordinary step of implanting high-risk and prolific offenders with GPS tracking devices in a bid to curb its crime problem.

City council in Williams Lake has voted unanimously in favour of a motion to support tracking the movement of criminals 24 hours a day by inserting microchips into their arms, although a U.S. company specializing in tracking technology says it isn't aware of such a device.

Coun. Scott Nelson acknowledged the city does not have the legal authority to use such a device and said it will seek approval from the federal and provincial governments.

"We understand and we recognize people's rights, but at the end of the day you've got to take a look, collectively, at what's at stake here,'' he said Thursday in a telephone interview.

"Do we continue to live in fear because of a radical 20 people or 25 people in the community? Or does a collective community right supersede those people?''

The proposal comes after local RCMP released video of a 14-year-old boy's bike being stolen at gunpoint in a park.

"We understand and we recognize people's rights, but at the end of the day you've got to take a look, collectively, at what's at stake here."

Nelson said the program would only apply to adult offenders designated "high-risk'' or "prolific'' by the Mounties.

"These are the guys that are in and out of the court system, that really create the absolute havoc inside your community.''

Beyond the legal questions, there might also be technological limitations on what Williams Lake is proposing.

Ryan Horban, vice-president of sales for California-based Tracking Systems Direct, said people sometimes confuse GPS trackers with identification chips used in pets, but the two technologies are very different.

"It's really a cry of frustration."

"I'm not familiar with anything like that. It's more like science fiction,'' he said in a telephone interview.

GPS trackers send out data while microchips do not, he explained. To transmit a signal, he said long-term trackers need a power source and a battery worn on the body likely would not work.

"If you inject something, there's simply no power source,'' Horban added.

Micheal Vonn of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said the idea is also a legal non-starter because the federal government would never approve it on constitutional grounds.

"It's really a cry of frustration. But the substance of their proposal is not a tool that could possibly be used to address their concerns.''

People under house arrest can already be ordered by a court to wear an ankle bracelet, but the device only alerts authorities if they leave home, rather than track their every movement. The B.C. government recently unveiled new ankle bracelets that have GPS technology, but they are only used in rare cases.

'Significant hurdles to overcome'

RCMP Insp. Milo MacDonald said he appreciates the city's efforts to tackle crime but he's not aware of any law that would allow officers to use the microchips.

"There are fairly significant hurdles to overcome legally even to get a tracking warrant for a vehicle, for example,'' he said.

He said 13 people have been designated high-risk or prolific offenders in the community, but one has since left Williams Lake and seven are in prison.

Williams Lake, with a population of just over 11,000 in the central Interior of B.C., topped Statistics Canada's rankings for violent crime severity in cities with more than 10,000 people in 2014.

MacDonald said while the city has seen several high-profile criminal incidents in recent months, there has been a statistical decline in reported crimes every year over the past eight years.

Mike Morris, the province's public safety minister and solicitor general, said he is not familiar with the technology being proposed by the council, but his ministry is working on a safety pilot project for the city.

— With files from Gemma Karstens-Smith

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.

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