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Violence, defund the police and COVID-19: looking back on 2020 with Edmonton’s police chief

Click to play video 'Looking back on 2020 with  Edmonton Police Service Chief Dale McFee' Looking back on 2020 with Edmonton Police Service Chief Dale McFee
Edmonton Police Service Chief Dale McFee talked about the challenges the force faced in 2020 in a year-end interview Wednesday, including the rising number of guns on the streets, increased crime and domestic violence. Sarah Komadina reports – Dec 16, 2020

2020 was defined by a number of things: a global pandemic, a massive civil rights movement, calls to defund the police — and the city of Edmonton wasn’t immune to any of them.

In his year-end interview with 630 CHED Mornings, Edmonton Police Service Chief Dale McFee talked about the major year we’re leaving behind and what he’s hopeful to see for his force and the city in the future.

Violence in Edmonton

While McFee feels violence in Edmonton has been “way too high for way too long,” he said his force was making strides at the beginning of the year. Then the pandemic happened.

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“When COVID hit, everybody was buying every gun off every shelf,” he said.

According to McFee, there were two phenomena at that point in time. First, no one really knew what COVID was going to bring.

Everybody thought they’re going have to protect their property.

Second, the federal government introduced the prohibited weapons list. McFee thinks much of the gun violence Edmonton has seen this year stems from those moments.

“All those guns were bought up and now those guns are actually on the streets,” he said.

Read more: Street checks down 48%, gun violence on the rise, Edmonton police tell commission

As of Wednesday morning, Edmonton had recorded 35 homicides in 2020. According to McFee, 17 of those were drug-related, another seven involved gangs and three were related to domestic violence. The other eight are too early to tell, he said.

The violence is because of some of the escalation in the heightened sensitivities that are going on right now, plus some of the frustration.

“We’re seeing it play out in smaller homes and domestic violence as well. It’s the perfect storm.”

Click to play video '‘We know who you are’: Edmonton police chief warning after five shootings in three days' ‘We know who you are’: Edmonton police chief warning after five shootings in three days
‘We know who you are’: Edmonton police chief warning after five shootings in three days – Nov 4, 2020

It’s a trend McFee is hoping to turn around. The EPS bought a firearms testing facility in an effort to prosecute quicker. The police service has also taken a number of guns off the street recently, he added, and promised there will be more soon.

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“Those are the people that I’ve always said — it’s not the vulnerable people so much that need to be in jail,” McFee said. “But these individuals, there’s a place for them and we certainly intend to hold them accountable and you’ll see more of that coming in the future days and weeks.”

BLM and defund the police

After the death of George Floyd, a massive civil rights movement exploded across the world. Edmonton saw its own Black Lives Matter rallies and many calls to defund the police.

McFee said part of the reason he was hired was to look at changes and how the police “operates in the social space.”

He says defunding the police or any other entity doesn’t work, but what needs to happen is to have a conversation about how much money is in the social safety net system.

“Is that money getting outcomes and is it aligned and it does it have governance in place?” McFee said. “Does it have some independent ability to look at what the outcomes are for people? And that changes the conversation.”

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Edmonton COVID-19 budget projections worse than predicted – Jul 6, 2020

McFee added he’ll be the first one to admit police need to change, but said you have to balance that with what’s right for the citizens of Edmonton.

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Now, knowing just how much money is in that system and having a pretty good understanding of what’s in the system in Edmonton, I think there’s more than enough money in the system,” he said.

“I think what we’re really missing is the alignment, the direction and thinking that are we going to focus on a recovery oriented system to get people that are struggling in a better place and we need to play a role in that.

Read more: Council cuts Edmonton police budget by $11M, creates citizen task force

In July, Edmonton city council cut the EPS budget by $11 million. McFee said the hope was other agencies would come forward with some of their resources and funding in an effort to do things differently, because McFee says how things are run now isn’t working.

I think COVID’s exposed that. So spinning all that, I think we are in the best opportunity we’ve probably ever been to lead some change. But it’s going to take all of us to lead and and to make some difficult decisions.

COVID-19

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the EPS message when it came to enforcing any kind of restrictions is education before enforcement, but police have had to lay some charges.

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He said there were a number of incidents that turned violent because someone was protesting over wearing a mask and causing others to get hurt.

“That’s ridiculous,” McFee said.

Read more: Calgary, Edmonton police say more COVID-19 tickets likely after Dr. Hinshaw requests enforcement

Heading into the holiday season, and into 2021, he said his officers are ready to enforce the provincial restrictions, if necessary.

“We’ll choose the right time to do that,” he said. “You know, nobody’s going to put more people at risk or put their safety in jeopardy.”

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