Police Chief Dale McFee told Edmonton city council that cutting police funding is not a good strategy.
Instead, he said municipal and provincial governments need to work together to build a better social safety net.
“To be clear, we’re not interested in Band-Aid fixes that keep the cycle repeating itself,” McFee said at a city council meeting on Monday.
“We’re interested in getting to the root causes that affect real lasting change.”
Council heard a presentation from Edmonton police on a series of efforts to change the service. A number of these initiatives began last year but people began paying more attention to them after the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests over the summer.
Protesters said systemic racism exists in police services. There were calls to “defund the police” and spend the money that went to police on social programs to help the marginalized and racialized people who were often in conflict with officers.
Chief McFee says Edmonton police are working hard to improve relationships with such groups but taking money away from police will hurt.
Police interact with two main groups of people, according to McFee. First, there are the dangerous people who are often repeat and violent offenders. McFee says police are required to protect the public from such people.
He says the other main group officers deal with are the people who fall through the cracks. Many are marginalized, racialized or suffer from mental illness.
McFee says police often aren’t the best people to help them.
Governments and social agencies are and McFee says they all need to do a better job coordinating efforts to help marginalized Edmontonians.
Achieving that, he says, will achieve the principles of defunding the police without taking money away from police.
“Our system if fractured,” McFee said. “We don’t have to look any further than the number of homeless camps that emerged this summer to see that there’s some very large and detrimental gaps.
“People are and will continue to fall through the cracks if we don’t seriously consider how we can recalibrate the social safety net.”
A report conducted for Edmonton police suggests federal, provincial and municipal governments spend $7.5 billion in Alberta every year on social programs, many of those aimed at marginalized communities.
McFee says many of those groups are doing their own thing, measuring their own successes and not working with other groups doing similar work. That, he says, should change.
“This is the chance, in my opinion, in terms of us, the city and the province, to actually see the light together.
“Something has got to change. We can continue to do this and move money around and we’ll just continue to have the same problem we’ve had for the last several years.”
Mayor Don Iveson says systemic racism is a problem in policing and in governments and agencies. He adds this report helps clarify what needs to happen next.
Iveson says he wants to “look at opportunities to enhance collaboration between agencies and we’re starting to get a sense of what the treasure map for that would look like.”
As for police funding, Edmonton city council hasn’t finalized next year’s budget but Iveson says balance is important.
“I think the bottom line is the city is committed to supporting and equipping our police service to do their important work while at the same time making sure we get the right outcomes and the social safety net.”
A spokesperson for the justice minister and solicitor general said Minister Kaycee Madu had not been briefed on the discussions and could not immediately respond to the chief’s request.
However, Madu was asked in the legislature about the idea of defunding the police. He reiterated direction he gave to municipalities earlier this year saying, “to not get caught up in the defund the police rhetoric.”