A petition created on Sunday calling on Lethbridge to defund the city’s Watch program and direct that funding towards other social programs has already garnered more than 2,500 signatures.
The Watch program was created in May 2019 to help increase safety in the downtown and is primarily comprised of volunteers.
The petition says the program is not helping the homeless population, many of which are minorities, and instead is making them feel threatened.
The petition goes on to say, “The Watch was introduced to comfort white people at the cost of ignoring our unhoused population and increasing the harassment that they face daily.”
READ MORE: The Lethbridge Watch attracts new volunteers
“It is a manifestation of white supremacy, ongoing colonialism, and racist discrimination.”
According to the city, some members on the team are interested in pursuing careers in law enforcement and others have jobs that are not in any way related to policing or emergency services — currently there is one military reservist who serves as a volunteer.
“The Watch has recorded a total of 2,325 events – 70 per cent of which are public service calls which include wellness checks, assisting with found property and motor vehicles, assisting businesses, contacting social service providers and de-escalating situations,” read a statement released by the Lethbridge Police Service Monday in response to the petition.
“Wellness checks account for 22 per cent of the public service calls. Any time a Watch member encounters someone who is unresponsive or in medical distress, the welfare of the person is checked and medical services – not police – are contacted.”
In the past month, Watch volunteers have administered Narcan and saved the lives of three people suffering from overdoses, according to officials.
Calling paramedics for vulnerable individuals in medical distress accounts for six per cent of the total events recorded.
The statement goes on to say, “Police contacts account for 19 per cent of all events and many involve The Watch calling police on behalf of vulnerable individuals who have been the victim of a crime – often theft, assault or domestic violence.”
The remaining events include safe walks where citizens, including vulnerable individuals, are escorted from one point to another in the event they are uncomfortable walking alone.
Jeff Cove, the manager of The Watch, says he’s not impressed with the allegations the petition is circulating.
“It’s disappointing because there’s not a lot,” Cove said. “I’ve looked at what’s posted and there’s not a lot of attention that’s been paid to what the facts are,” he added.
Creator of the petition, Rebecca Runions, says she is still gathering specific evidence relating to the petition, and declined an interview.
Cove says Runions hasn’t reached out to him directly.
The petition also takes issue with the $1.2 million in funding The Watch receives over two years.
“So, we have ten paid team leads, so as you can appreciate, the contact and the access to the public safety communications centre, the police building and what not.,” Cove said. “We need to have people who take responsibility, but we also need to have people who write the report.”
In response to the specific allegations of racism, Cove says the team receives training on cultural awareness, addiction, homelessness, street awareness and safety, CPR and First Aid, de-escalation techniques, overdose recognition and Narcan administration, mental health and suicide awareness and more.
The downtown Lethbridge BRZ, a committee comprised of hundreds of businesses, says they’ve always been in favor of the team and the service they provide.
“They’re able to be just an extra set of eyes… so when a problem starts, maybe you have someone who is using drugs who is passed out or in trouble, they can call for help,” the chair of Lethbridge BRZ Hungter Heggie said.
“When there’s people causing disturbance on the street they can also call for help.”
According to police, a recent survey by the Citizen Society Research Lab at Lethbridge College, set to be released later this month, found 88 per cent of respondents support The Watch program.
However, it is unclear how representative the survey is of people who are dealing with homelessness and addiction.