Seeing is believing, as the old saying goes. But when it comes to organized crime investigations, seeing is the key to bringing perpetrators to justice.
That’s where ALERT’s surveillance teams come in. Operating across Alberta in support of organized crime investigators, they collect detailed information on associations, exchanges, evidence and techniques.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” said Insp. Marc Cochlin, officer in charge of ALERT’s Edmonton teams. “Our surveillance teams put the video, audio and pictures together to form the written chain of events. There is nothing more compelling than the suspect watching themselves committing crime, captured on video, as it gets played in court for all to see. Surveillance units collect some of the most important evidence for any of our ongoing files.”
The evidence gathered by surveillance teams can vary greatly depending on the investigation and what objectives need to be met. “Missions can range from documenting a target’s lifestyle to surreptitiously collecting cast off DNA from a known suspect,” Cochlin said. “The teams capture this information and these observations in many different forms of media.”
“Without giving out trade secrets,” he added, “if you can dream it, it can be used or has been used.”
That said, surveillance team members face some unique challenges in their specialized positions. Cochlin said it’s easy to follow someone, but it’s pretty difficult to not be seen while doing it.
“The hard part about what our teams do is to not be noticed as they follow the targets. This is key to collect the evidence necessary for the prosecution, in real time, as their criminal activity continues,” he said. “This endeavor is further complicated by the fact many organized crime groups claim to invoke countersurveillance techniques as they are trying to stay ahead of law enforcement. Yet, at the end, we always seem to put forward the best evidentiary package required for prosecution.”
The ability to do surveillance without being noticed is something that is learned through intense and ongoing training. “You have to become a ghost. To be everyone and no one at the same time,” Cochlin said. “Driving skills are worked on, as well as photography and DNA collection.
“Surveillance is a perishable skill, which means training continues throughout a member’s career in order for them to stay sharp, stay informed and stay apprised of the ever-changing judicial landscape.”
While ALERT’s surveillance teams are kept busy with investigations initiated by ALERT, they also take on surveillance requests from other law enforcement agencies in the province, in communities big and small. Cochlin said the ability to provide assistance like this is a huge help in building good relationships between agencies that ultimately help everyone reach their goals of bringing down organized crime and keeping communities safe.
“The surveillance teams’ expertise and higher-level skill sets are highly sought after, as a several-month investigation can go to the wayside after only one mistake by a team,” he said. “Many smaller agencies or detachments just don’t have the resources or funding for a team or two to spin on a target for weeks on end. This is where ALERT comes in — to assist and fulfill the desired area’s mission objectives through the deployment of surveillance.”