It was a post on Facebook that was the straw that broke Cory Marshall’s camel’s back: a young kid, who had received a dirt bike as a Christmas present, had it stolen out of his back yard before he’d even had more than a brief chance to try it out.
The parent who posted the notice included pictures and the story, hoping someone would see the dirt bike and help fix the shattered heart of her son, who had been so disappointed by the theft.
Marshall didn’t know who they were, not personally. But the theft made him “ticked off.”
As he kept an eye on the post, he hoped and hoped and hoped to hear the dirt bike had made it back to the kid’s backyard, but sadly, that was not the case. As far as he knows, Marshall says the dirt bike had never been recovered.
Around the same time, Marshall and colleagues Miranda and Mike Coenen began discussing how society has changed since they were growing up. When there was a theft in the community, everyone banded together to keep an eye out. Organizations like Community Watch and Block Parent kept their eyes peeled for suspicious behaviour and people in need of help.
Today, everything is so busy and much more digital. Neighbours don’t know each other’s names, but they know people they’ve never met in person through online Facebook groups. And so while some of that Community Watch- and Block Parent-minded community existed online, through Facebook groups like Stettler Buy and Sell, there was no place for members of the community to actually congregate, share news of thefts and recovery, and talk about suspicious behaviour.
Though the thoughts had been tumbling around inside Marshall’s head like laundry in a dryer, it had never actually solidified into an actual idea. The catalyst was that heartbroken boy and his stolen dirt bike.
“I decided I wanted to do something about it,” Marshall said.
Together with the Coenens, Marshall started the Stettler and Area Thefts Facebook group, specifically with the hope that through Facebook, people could be made aware of thefts in the community and keep their eyes peeled for stolen property.
“Around that time, during the summer, there was a lot of vehicle thefts,” Marshall said. “Then there were a lot of thefts in the industrial park. I guess it’s a sign of the times.”
With the economy still drooping and many people making less money than to what they’re accustomed, laid off, or out of work entirely, some people have turned to crime. For some people, Marshall says he believes it’s desperation, though for others it was likely an easier transition.
“I mean, who steals a kid’s dirt bike?” He asked, rhetorically. “You know it’s for a kid. Why would you do that?”
Though the group was started with a hope of seeing items recovered and thefts solved, the group hasn’t exactly panned out that way.
“I think we’ve helped one truck be recovered,” Miranda Coenen said. “That’s it.”
What they did see, however, bolstered their spirits. In a world they believe has become self-absorbed and entitled, isolated from each other by electronics and busy life, the three moderators saw the community begin to band together.
“People started reporting suspicious behaviour,” Miranda Coenen said. “Trucks cruising. This guy hanging out around houses. So on.”
People began to pay attention. They started to watch. One of the areas the group has found a lot of traction is in Erskine, where people report vehicles — usually trucks — that cruise up and down streets and along back alleys. Once people knew about these vehicles and their cruising habits, they’d keep an eye open.
Cameron Russell, a corporal with the Stettler RCMP detachment, said groups like Stettler and Area Thefts are an excellent way for communities to band together and limit crime, but their effectiveness is limited unless the moderators are willing to work with police.
“If information isn’t passed along, it doesn’t help us,” he said. “Communities looking out for communities is beneficial to everyone, especially since police can’t be anywhere.”
For those interested in keeping a watch on their community, Russell had two pieces of advice: Stay safe and don’t make accusations. Accusing people of bad behaviour of Facebook can get messy and result in civil litigation, he warned. Likewise, actually going out into the community to approach these suspicious vehicles can be dangerous. Instead, call police, he said.
For Marshall and the Coenens, seeing people come together as a community, even if it’s just online, has been heartening.
“We felt people don’t take responsibility,” Marshall said. “And some don’t, still. But here, we’ve got a bunch of people being responsible not for just themselves, but for their neighbours, their community, as well.”