WATCH: The president of the Edmonton Police Association issued a warning one day after the municipal budget was passed. Tom Vernon explains.
EDMONTON – The Edmonton Police Association says front-line police are under stress like never before and the city and province have to figure out how to fund policing.
“At some point in time… there has to be a serious discussion between the province of Alberta and the City of Edmonton … in terms of whether the funding model that’s currently in existence for policing in major cities – in particular Edmonton – in Alberta is reasonable and realistic,” says Sgt. Tony Simioni. “In our view, it’s not.
“The burden falls too heavily on the local Edmonton taxpayer.”
Simioni, the outgoing director of the police association and a 35-year member, responded to the city’s decision not to fund the request for 84 additional police positions: 40 for the arena district, nine for transit, and 35 for front-line. As part of the municipal budget, city council approved the 35 front-line positions. The city also previously approved 52 new positions as part of a service package.
Still, Simioni says, as roughly 60,000 people move to Edmonton each year, the EPS needs more support – whether it comes from the city coffers or the provincial ones.
“The situation in Edmonton is unique and it’s different from almost any other major city in Canada. We have a large bedroom community outside the city of Edmonton that plays, works, recreates, and does business within the City of Edmonton but yet, pays no taxes that support the police burden in the city.”
And, he says, the police burden is heavy.
“This cannot be a debate that occurs over the next three or four years, with struggle and going back and forth, because our members are paying the price now,” says Simioni.
“Our front-line members are stressed in numbers we have never seen before.
“In the last two years, we have never seen the percentage of usage of our employee assistance program,” he explains. “Being asked to do more with less … constantly and having a conscience and trying to do the best you can in an occupation that’s as difficult as ours, takes its toll, mentally.
“The workload is simply becoming extreme.”
Simioni points to indicators like the rate of suicide by front-line police workers. He explains calls for police service have gone up by 4,000 this year and officers are struggling to respond to those calls, often arriving for the start of their shifts facing a backlog of calls for service.
“We’re not getting to priority one calls, the high-profile, high-needs, 911 calls in the fashion that we want to.”
He says not getting to priority calls within seven minutes isn’t good for public safety and it isn’t good for EPS members because it can sometimes compromise their own safety.
“It’s just a matter of time I think before we have a catastrophe here in terms of police officers’ safety being compromised,” Simioni says. “We’ve been very lucky in the City of Edmonton in the last 25 years.
“It’s just been by the grace of God that we haven’t lost any more members in the line of service.
“I shudder to see that day coming but, if this trend continues, it’s going to occur,” Simioni says.
On Thursday, city council approved the 2015 operating budget, which translates to a tax increase of 5.7 per cent. It’s the largest increase the city’s seen since 2009. Mayor Don Iveson says the hike is a big one, but unless a new funding arrangement is made with the province, the city will continue to rely on property taxes. It’s a situation he’d like to see changed, perhaps via a city charter.
Councillor Scott McKeen points out the police force saw the biggest increase of any department from council. Both sides agree there needs to be more support from the province.
Simioni says he doesn’t want to be too critical of city council, but he does question some of the budget priorities, like funding late night transit while declining to fund additional transit police officers.
“Turning a whole bunch of drunks loose on our public transit system late at night and you don’t have the police officers to staff it?
“We’re going to have a problem and we’ve had problems in the past.”
Simioni also questions the decision to fund more bicycle lanes.
“Eight million dollars on bike paths for the city. While it may be very desirable and it may make Edmonton a chic place to drive through, I have to wonder how much those bike paths are going to be used and how much value for dollar we’re going to get out of those bike paths if they’re not safe to ride through in the first place.”
He says city council and the provincial government need to look at the funding and grant systems as well as the equity between how major Alberta cities are funded for policing compared to smaller communities.
Simioni calls funding from the province “inequitable,” adding that Alberta’s funding for police officer ratio is among the lowest in the country, just behind PEI.
“We’re asking the provincial government to step up and engage in a discussion – more than a discussion – action and a plan immediately.”
Alberta’s justice minister says it’s too soon to say what might come in the next budget.