Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee told city council Wednesday a re-written Police Act is a good place to start when it comes to improving public oversight of the service.
He made the comments at a joint meeting of city council and the police commission, which looked into complaints by organizations like Black Lives Matter and others about how police conduct themselves.
McFee said public complaints should be handled by an arms-length organization such as the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team or an ASIRT-like body “which has some independence so it takes the police out of the equation.”
The new oversight group McFee suggested should have “somebody with community representation and the expertise and the skill sets to assess these (complaints) and to work these things independently and differently.”
McFee defended the EPS approach to street checks that has come under criticism for several years by minority groups and advocates.
“We have a whole pile of different things that we’ve incorporated into training, under the recommendations of the street checks review, in how we get more minorities hired into our police service because with hiring diversity, you change the thought process.”
Mayor Don Iveson has called for a public hearing so council can get input on how the EPS is run. He anticipates city council will hear a lot about the street check protocol that is in place.
“The input that I have had from Edmontonians and from individuals who I have reached out to or heard from directly that have lived experience with more recently with — notwithstanding all the policy changes and training changes and other things…
“It still feels to them like psychological detention and therefor unfair, unlawful, unjust and concerning.”
Several topics were covered in this first three-hour session reviewing how Edmonton police operate.
On the use of body cameras, McFee said he’d welcome them if the federal government pays for them. He told council the cost to equip members would be in the $4-million range, with another $2 million annually to operate them.
He also said the EPS is in the early stages of equipping vehicles with microphones and cameras to record interactions with the public and the fleet should be fully set up within 18 months.
McFee said police need to do more work in the early stages of triaging social issues to the needed agencies, in order to keep vulnerable individuals out of the justice system.
Once it’s time for others to leave the justice system, more needs to be done so they don’t return, he said. But that requires more integration of organizations, which includes training, so everyone is on the same page.
“The whole fundamental system needs to be aligned and there needs to be a focus on, and measured by, who you get out of the system not who you put in.
“I think we can play a lead role with our partners in doing that.”
He also argued against reducing the police budget, saying it would lead to layoffs, starting with some of the most recent recruit hires from the past couple of years which includes, of 140 members, 46 women and 40 members who identify as visible minorities.
The chief compared the EPS budget to that of Chicago and Minneapolis, in terms of their portion of the city budget — 14.9 per cent compared to figures of upwards of 38 per cent in the U.S.
However, both McFee and the mayor agree more emphasis needs to be put on social agencies, like the offshoot of the EPS, Reach.
“We need to do much more on prevention and I also believe prevention is cheaper,” Iveson told reporters.
“Part of the challenge is so many of those prevention levers are in the hands of provincial and federal governments as well. So getting a whole response to this to get the system changed, that I think people are fundamentally arguing for and the chief says he agrees with in principle, is going to be more complex than a single-handed action by city council.”
A motion proposed by Councillor Andrew Knack was set aside for further discussion.
On top of a look at freezing the EPS budget, it also included a review of how transit peace officers conduct themselves, and comparisons with other major cities on interactions with individuals with mental health challenges.
The motion will come back in September and will include an analysis from outside experts on “defunding” models proposed in other jurisdictions.
Plans are to hold a public hearing to gather input on the police budget, which is anticipated to be frozen for 2021, and not see a population or inflation increase.
The hope is to set a date in the near future for that hearing to be held in the council chambers at City Hall, however meeting restrictions have been complicated by the COVID-19 guidelines that limit the number of people who can be present.