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Edmontonians address police response and budget during public hearing

Click to play video: 'Edmontonians speak at Day 1 of public hearing on racism and policing' Edmontonians speak at Day 1 of public hearing on racism and policing
Three dozen people spoke at the first day of a three-day long Edmonton city council public hearing on policing and racism on Monday. Breanna Karstens-Smith has the details. – Jun 15, 2020

Dozens of members of the public were expected to speak during a public hearing that started Monday morning.

The hearing is in response to growing calls for systemic change within the Edmonton Police Service since the death of George Floyd and subsequent anti-police brutality demonstrations.

READ MORE: Virtual public hearing about systemic racism in Edmonton, policing policies to begin Monday

Councillors are considering a motion that would see several changes to the way policing is done in Edmonton.

If passed, city administration would be asked to look at how many mental health, addictions, homelessness or other social-issue calls police respond to. They would also consider whether those calls could be responded to by community organizations instead of police.

A report would also be drafted looking at how other police departments have divested or defunded policing.

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Once that information is determined, council could look at freezing the police budget at 2020 levels going forward.

READ MORE: Black Lives Matter petition calls on Edmonton to defund police service

Transit peace officers would also see changes, with the introduction of an oversight mechanism similar to Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT).

During the beginning of the public hearing Monday, many of the speakers were in favour of the motion and additional measures.

“When we talk about defunding the police, we don’t mean abolishing or taking power away, we actually want to make your jobs easier. But right now we’re asking too much of police,” speaker Alex Eskandarkhah explained.

“Instead of militarization and equipment, there should be conversations about investing in mental health, investing in the community, society and the future.”

University of Alberta law professor Ubaka Ogbogu said the change could start with “baby steps.”

“Even if you take a million dollars and put it somewhere, you’re going to make an impact that will, over time, will be better than leaving it where it is an exacerbating the situation.”

Councillor Ben Henderson acknowledged there is disparity in Edmonton when it comes to policing.

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“My experience with the police, given who I am, has been very different and my impressions of them when I interact with them are very different from huge chunks of the rest of the city,” the Ward 8 councillor said.

“That’s the essence of what we need to try to deal with here. Everybody needs to be, ideally, having the experience that my experience would be with the police.”

Edmonton police officer Bruce Phillips told councillors he had concerns about community organizations taking over calls from officers.

“If police stop being called to these events, we’re probably just going to receive more requests to assist other agencies from workers justifiably feel a situation is more dangerous than they’re comfortable with,” the officer said.

He admitted sensitivity training or increased mental wellness training could be useful but pointed out that could be difficult to do if funding were to be cut to the service.

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READ MORE: Edmonton police chief Dale McFee expresses concerns over defunding police service

Some of the speakers expressed frustration that the motion does not go far enough.

Rebecca Blakey, owner of the store The QUILTBAG, said the motion was “grossly insufficient.”

“I call on you instead to immediately repeal the $75-million budget increase promised to EPS in 2019 and to invest EPS’ entire $383-million budget into new grassroots infrastructure that prioritizes community safety that prioritizes Black, Indigenous and otherwise marginalized communities within one month.”

Blakey said the community in the area around her store has worked on community intervention instead of police intervention to help marginalized people in her area.

Many of the speakers also called for the end of the School Resource Officer program which sees Edmonton police officers stationed in local schools.

Some speakers called for the complete abolition of the police service.

“We have this assumption that police prevent crime,” said Juan Vargas. “Rather, the only thing that police do is respond to crime.”

READ MORE: Edmonton police chief discusses oversight, body cams and budget with city council

Others said councillors were just responding to current events in North America and bringing a problem to Edmonton where there isn’t one.

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Edmonton Griesbach Member of Parliament and former city councillor Kerry Diotte said he believed this was the wrong time for the discussion.

“I suggest it’s only appropriate we all take a deep breath. First let’s go over the anger we feel about Mr. Floyd’s death. Let’s talk about this very serious issue of policing when everyone has had time to heal over that death.”

Floyd said he could not breathe as he died after being arrested by Minneapolis police.

There are about 85 speakers scheduled to comment during the public hearing.

The city has scheduled all day Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to hear from the public.

Click to play video: 'Public hearing on racism in Edmonton next week at city hall' Public hearing on racism in Edmonton next week at city hall
Public hearing on racism in Edmonton next week at city hall – Jun 11, 2020

 

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