— Feature —

Policing and the people

Edmonton Police Service gets a big slice of the municipal funding pie, but could funds be better used elsewhere?

This summer, thousands gathered in downtown Edmonton—even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—to protest the treatment of black people in Canada and the US. People at the rally held signs that said “defund the police” and “racism is a pandemic too—Black Lives Matter.”

Amidst the global conversation around race, a discussion was sparked about the amount of resources being devoted to traditional policing here in Edmonton, and whether funds could better be spent on things like affordable housing.

Activists took this message to city hall, where, during a multi-day public hearing this summer, 150 citizens gave their opinion on the role of police, with many speaking in favour of diverting part of the police budget into social services. The result was an $11 million reduction of the planned funding increase for Edmonton Police service, which was originally slated for a $75 million increase from 2019-2022. The projected total annual budget for EPS in 2020 is $471.60 million.

For some, there is a disconnect in the help that is requested by Edmontonians in crisis and the help that is on offer. 211, a helpline of Alberta’s community and social services, reported that the number one unmet need in Edmonton in September was residential housing options; an unmet need being when 211 is unable to provide a referral for the need identified. The top issue identified in 211 calls in September overall was mental health concerns.

In frustration, many citizens and activists have turned to the police budget—$471.60 million in 2020—asking why some of that money can’t be allocated to housing and mental health support.

The cost of policing is a major municipal expense, taking up a projected 14.71 per cent of tax supported city expenditures in 2020—the largest single expense on the books. Since 2016, there has been a 23.4 per cent increase in the police budget, looking at the projected 2020 expenses. Alberta has a year-over-year population growth of 1.38 per cent. The estimated 187.3 officers per 100,000 people, which was data reported in 2018, makes Edmonton the fourth strongest police presence in the country.

These funding realities exist despite Mayor Don Iveson often addressing the lack of affordable housing. In a letter released on social media on October 7, Iveson wrote that Edmonton faces a critical shortage of 900 units of supportive housing, while the city is estimating that 180 new people are becoming homeless each month.

This crisis in affordable housing is increasing, possibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying 11 per cent record unemployment in Alberta. As a result, Edmonton continues to grapple with how to provide more housing options, as evidenced by the emergence of Camp Pekiwewin, a 170-tent camp erected in Edmonton’s river valley.

“Now is the time to shift our focus and tax dollars from policing and surveillance to community-led initiatives that nourish our communities.”

Black Lives Matter YEG

“No other provisions were made for the houseless in the city,” says Shima Robinson, the media liaison for Camp Pekiwewin who spoke to The Yards a few days before the camp closed on November 6. “Obviously there’s an issue [around homelessness] and that is partly what the camp was established to address,” she says.

The camp’s placement at the Rossdale power plant was deliberate. “The camp site is, traditionally, a place of ceremony. Reclaiming it was a big big deal,” says Robinson. The space was being used as overflow parking for the nearby ReMax Field.

“That is not the proper use for the land given that kind of history,” says Robinson. She added that the camp was also created as a prayer camp, and is meant to fulfill spiritual needs as well as fill the gap in housing.

The organizers of Camp Pekiwewin are among those who want to see the city’s financial resources allocated differently. They also don’t believe that the police are necessarily best suited to respond to community members in crisis. “There’s an endemic culture in policing for disdain for houseless community members. They just don’t see them as valuable citizens,” says Robinson.

(Left) June 5, 2020: A closeup of a demonstrator’s sign at a Black Lives Matter protest at the Alberta Legislature Building. (Right) October 18th 2020: Camp Pekiwewin, located next to ReMax field. Photo credit: Shutterstoc

The camp has had a lot of interactions with the police during its short existence. Police Chief Dale McFee, during a community update on October 7, 2020 said that calls to police in Rossdale have more than doubled since last year. The calls were often related to nuisance or a disturbance. 

“There were a number of incidents at the outset of the camp that required EMS where police showed up instead or with EMS and escalated situations,” says Robinson.

“Ideally, police don’t show up for any kind of wellness check or minor disturbance,” she adds. “We have a social infrastructure of outreach workers and mental health counsellors. There are social workers where people are trained to deal with mental illness. It is imperative that people have access to these services when they are at their highest point of crisis.”

Black Lives Matter Edmonton, who co-organized the summer rallies, called for police funding to be transferred to services such as REACH Edmonton’s Crisis Diversion Team, and gathered more than 13,000 signatures this summer with calls to invest in community and divest from policing, writing on their website: “Cyclical police violence against Black people, Indigenous people and other marginalized communities has persisted since the inception of policing in North America. Anti-Black practices, like carding, remain an entrenched tool the Edmonton Police Service uses to inflict harm on our loved ones. Now is the time to shift our focus and tax dollars from policing and surveillance to community-led initiatives that nourish our communities.”

Hannan Mohamud is the co-host of “Is This For Real,” a podcast that explores the lived experiences of Black people in Edmonton, and they are working on a soon-to-be released episode on mental health.

“I feel like mental health wellness in the Black community is something that is rarely acknowledged within ourselves, let alone society. And to talk about mental health and policing is a very underrated, serious, dangerous conversation that needs to happen,” says Mohamud.

Mohamud also feels like the public does not hear much about police interaction and what can go wrong. “If you listen to the Alberta Serious Injury Response Team, police and some news articles […] no one is really saying that mental health calls coincide with police services and lead to brutality. It is community members who have been saying this,” she says.

In September, the Edmonton Journal reported the use of force by city police was on the rise, with mental health complaints leading the cases where force is involved, according to a report to the Edmonton Police Commission.

Between January and June, there were 1,290 use of force occurrences—up 11.9 per cent from the same time last year. Eighty-three of them involved Mental Health Act complaints.

David Veitch, Deputy Chief Community Safety and Well-Being Bureau with the Edmonton Police Service, acknowledges that he has heard concerns about the excessive use of force or discrimination from the community. “I’m not saying that we don’t have issues with some of our interactions. We know that and we heard that from the public.”

He also added that they have a professional standards branch that investigates complaints.

Veitch says that there has been a review of calls for service to police, to see what calls could be handled by a different service, but sometimes it is difficult to know in advance who should respond.  “When we look at the data, we sometimes don’t know the nature of the call until we get there,” he says.

Along with the increase in use of force occurrences, domestic violence calls to police have also increased during the pandemic. According to Veitch, there has been a 10 per cent increase in domestic violence incidents, and the police are seeing the level of violence increase in the calls that they respond to.

Veitch says that once a situation is deemed safe, they can still hand off care to the appropriate agencies. However, both Robinson and Veitch mentioned that hours for social services tend to be Monday to Friday, and not typically late into the evening.

“That doesn’t help us at three or four in the morning. Although there is work with REACH Edmonton who we do a number of these hand-offs to, we still need agencies that are 24/7,” Veitch says.

When asked about the concerns raised by community groups like BLM and Camp Pekiwewin about a hesitancy to call police, Veitch says that they are undertaking more than 50 community consultations, although these consultations are complicated because of COVID-19 and not being able to gather in large groups.

“Many of those communities are coming to the meetings and talking about very disappointing interactions with police. But they’re also talking about very positive interactions with the police. What we would all like is a consistency in response and practice,” says Veitch.

Many community groups and police agree there is a need to expand services to include more assistance for people in crisis, but how that looks amidst funding cuts from government remains to be seen. One thing remains clear—there are many in the community who are asking for change.