Edmonton’s police chief says he is committed to taking action to improve and repair relationships with racialized and underserved communities in the city.
At police headquarters Monday morning, Dale McFee committed to a “new path forward” to work with communities most affected in the fight against systemic racism, including Black, Indigenous, racialized and underserved communities.
“We have heard from community members and our own employees, where our actions and interactions have not been positive,” McFee said. “In order to be the good and just people we know ourselves to be, we must acknowledge some uncomfortable truths, and ask ourselves what steps we are taking to hold ourselves accountable.
“Racial injustice in our society is no longer a force we can collectively rationalize, study, ignore or worse yet — form another committee to assess.
“As we have seen from demonstrations around the world, including Edmonton — we saw dozens of hours of testimony at city council — demand for social justice and systemic change is absolutely necessary. This call for change covers society as a whole, but much of it right now focuses on police services.”
The Edmonton Police Service’s new strategy will come through community engagement. Police have vowed to create safe spaces for “extensive conversations” with communities.
Police vow to talk to more than 50 groups about their experiences and concerns. The EPS said everything will go through the chief’s office.
From there, the EPS will work with these communities to implement the required changes “as soon as possible.”
“The approach frees us from bureaucratic thinking (and) gives us the space to create human solutions without community partners,” McFee said. “While some of these changes will take time, both to understand and implement, we know that other solutions will present themselves immediately.”
The EPS said it recently kicked off the first of its community engagement sessions, and the response from participants was “both powerful and promising — not only in helping to build understanding and trust, but in providing new opportunities to discuss concerns and ways to work together.”
The plan is to continue the engagement sessions through 2021. Those who do not feel comfortable sharing their stories in an open setting can go online to get involved in the conversations.
Edmonton police say this is the largest endeavour ever undertaken by the EPS.
The demand for change has been thrust into the public eye in recent months through rallies, demonstrations and calls to defund the police.
A virtual public hearing about systemic racism in Edmonton and the police service was held earlier this summer. The EPS said the comments at the hearing highlighted the “tenuous nature of police relationships with marginalized communities in Edmonton, and that a segment of the population has historically not felt seen, heard or protected by police.”
Overall, the need for an equitable, restorative and ongoing approach came to the forefront, the EPS said.
The hearing followed several demonstrations in the city, as well as around the world, after the death of George Floyd. Floyd, a Black man, died on May 25 after a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck even as the handcuffed man said he couldn’t breathe. The incident was captured in widely seen bystander video that set off protests around the world.
Edmonton’s police chief said his plan to take action is not merely a promise, but that this is different. Some of those who are calling for change say they think this is different too.
“It’s highly encouraging. This is the first and only chief that we’ve had a commitment by, that’s willing to be held accountable,” community advocate Kari Thomason said.
“In all honesty, we’re the ones demanding change. We’re not asking them to change, we’re demanding it. So giving those solutions and having action put into place has to happen. We’re no longer going to sit idle, we’re not going to sit back and watch and just let lip service take it. It’s action time.”
Zaki Hirabe works with Edmonton youth through a program called Rajo, which means hope in Somali. He said he was involved in a roundtable discussion with the police and noted it included officers who work in the community and on the streets who also want to see change.
“We’ve given a lot of input in that roundtable, shared our experiences,” he said.
“We can see it from them that this is actually going to be a change that is going to have better results. Others have always just been talking but I feel like when we saw the officers who were involved, the chief who is really engaged listening to our stories, he’s all about change. So we asked for change and now it’s going to be up to the plan that’s out there to make this happen.”
However, Irfan Chaudhry said he isn’t sure yet. Chaudhry teaches criminology and studies race issues at MacEwan University and notes police have talked before.
“How is this any different from what has been done in the past?” he asked.
“What about the real meaningful work? What about the over-policing? What about the racial profiling?” he continued. “Maybe the street check review can be a starting point for us as a group to address collectively.”
The EPS will also introduce a new community advisory council, which will work directly with the EPS on changes to policy, procedure and operations.
“We recognize we have work to do to ensure we are identifying how our current actions may be reinforced in societal inequities and the legacy of racist legislation, policy and practices. We must do better and we will do better,” McFee said.
“There is no place for any form of racism in policing, nor in any of our communities.”
The new “Chief’s Community Council” will be led by people who experience marginalization, racism and discrimination, as well as community and business partners. The EPS said it’s meant to “allow for meaningful intercommunity collaboration and problem solving.”
“These are challenging times. Times that push us to rethink what we value, how we live in our communities and how we view public safety,” said Enyinnah Okere, executive director of the EPS Value and Impact Division.
“Meaningful change requires action.”
McFee acknowledged the social change requires equitable change within the EPS, and ensured members of this council will be dedicated to this work — and it will not be done off the side of anyone’s desk.
“We are not launching a study. We are not launching a commission or a task force. We are not writing a 30- to 90-day report. This is a perpetual commitment to evolve the way we relate and work with our community, particularly Indigenous, Black, racialized and other marginalized communities who typically find themselves to be the victims of inequitable systems,” he said.
“If we get it wrong, we adjust and make it better.”