Task force calls for Edmonton police funding freeze, more anti-racism training for officers

Click to play video: 'Community safety task force calls for major changes to Edmonton Police Service'
Community safety task force calls for major changes to Edmonton Police Service
WATCH ABOVE: Established in response to concerns about racism and interactions with city police, a diverse group of 17 Edmontonians has come up with 14 recommendations for Edmonton's city council to consider when it comes to community safety. Sarah Ryan reports. – Mar 31, 2021

That the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) should have its funding frozen and that police officers need to receive much more rigorous anti-racism training are among the recommendations brought forward in a new 68-page report from a task force created with the intention of bringing forward new ideas to make people of all backgrounds in the city feel more safe.

“Edmonton’s community safety ecosystem desperately needs to be modernized,” reads a section of the report released Wednesday by Edmonton’s community safety and well-being task force.

“Our city is spending more money each year doing the same things, in the same old ways, using the same old thinking, without seeing enough change. This is frustrating people and harming public trust in key institutions.”

The task force was created by city council last year after dozens of Edmontonians took part in public hearings in which many expressed concerns about racism in the city and offered accounts of their dealings with police.

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READ MORE: Police say Edmonton’s Indigenous population is ‘highly victimized’ amid rising racism in city 

Brian Curry, a member of the task force, said while some of the report’s recommendations may take time to implement should the city adopt them, “there are a number of recommendations we feel they could do tomorrow if they wanted.”

“We hope all 14 recommendations move forward,” said Erin Davis, another task force member. “But I will share that as a task force, we’ve said there’s still work for us moving forward. We will still be advocates and the voice for our recommendations.”

Funding for police

The task force’s report tackles the notion of “defunding the police” head-on, an idea that has increasingly become a topic of debate in Edmonton over the past year, as well as in other jurisdictions.

The report defines the term as “allocating funding in preventative and community-building ways, rather than in reactive and militaristic ways.”

“The essential idea is that investing public funds in health, education, social supports and other human development will lead to a more equitable community with less poverty, fewer health and social challenges and less demand for law enforcement,” the report reads.

The task force said, per capita, Edmonton spends more money on its police service than a number of other comparably-sized cities such as Winnipeg or Hamilton, and called for the police force to have its funding frozen until it is more in line with those cities. It also called for a portion of police funding to be tied to its performance.

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“Funding for EPS has marched upward, even as funding for other services has flatlined or been cut,” the report says. “In recent years, city council has provided funding to EPS regardless of its performance.”

The report suggests freezing funding would negate what the task force said would have amounted to $260 million in funding increases over the next five years. Instead, the task force said it believes that funding should be ” refunded back into the community to support 24/7 expansion of key social services and other community safety ecosystem needs.”

“EPS has enjoyed the privilege of receiving the money no matter what. Such a scheme provides zero financial incentive to save money, to divert people away from the criminal justice system, or to make any changes of any kind,” the report reads.

READ MORE: Edmonton police spend $500K to replace armoured vehicle this fall 

The report also suggests some funding could be provided to community organizations such as the Bear Clan Patrol, which works to help disadvantaged Edmontonians meet their basic needs and to establish a sense of safety in the community.

The report found nearly a third of the calls that Edmonton police officers respond to are what it termed “person-in-need calls involving no crime” (i.e. calls about an intoxicated person, wellness checks, concerns about a person’s mental health), which the task force said is something that has proven to be expensive and an ineffective use of resources.

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The report references an incident last month in which homeless Edmontonians were kicked out of an LRT station by police during bitterly cold weather conditions. It says such situations could be better handled by someone other than a police officer.

“A homeless individual taking shelter in an LRT station against -30 C temperatures does not need an enforcer swooping in to enforce a loitering bylaw and sending them out into the cold,” the report says. “They need a supportive hand who can help them safely access an emergency shelter.

“A middle-class person walking down the street or walking in the LRT station might think the enforcer is what’s needed, but that doesn’t make it right. Nor is it effective.”

EPS has previously expressed regret over the LRT incident and said it is investigating.

READ MORE: Report on Edmonton’s handling of homelessness during extreme cold slammed by community safety task force member 

The task force’s report also notes that community safety means something different to everyone. It acknowledges the need for police in certain situations to maintain public safety, but also adds that “community safety isn’t only about crime statistics.”

“Lower levels of crime do not automatically translate into safety,” the report reads.

The report also calls for the creation of an “independent, integrated call evaluation and dispatch centre, that sends the most appropriate service providers to the right calls.”

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More commitment to anti-racism needed from EPS

A number of recommendations in the report highlight the need for more commitment from police to anti-racism and creating an organizational culture that is more diverse and inclusive.

The report acknowledges police officers already receive training on bias awareness and interpersonal matters, however, it says much of the training is too “ad hoc” and should be more systemically reinforced to produce better results.

The task force lauded EPS’ efforts — and success — in diversifying its workforce over recent years, something it says is important to ensure the police force is representative of the community it serves.

“According to EPS, the proportion of recruits who self-identify as belonging to a minority group increased from 12 per cent in 2016 to 57 per cent in 2019. Since 2017, EPS has hired 333 new police officers, of whom 28 per cent were female, five per cent identified as Indigenous and 50 per cent identified as belonging to underrepresented communities, with at least 15 languages other than English spoken amongst them,” the report reads. “This is an encouraging trajectory that, if continued, can help embed the right organizational culture.

“As the most recent hires, however, these officers risk being the first to be fired because of the way the collective agreement operates. Indeed, it has been publicly noted this could happen if EPS were to face any funding cuts.”

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The report describes police officers’ collective bargaining agreement as “antiquated” because of how it benefits people with seniority and said it effectively “handcuffs our city’s flexibility while perpetuating systemic bias.”

“If any kind of hiccup were to hit city budgets, the encouraging progress made by EPS would be lost, not because the most recent hires are the weakest performers, but because antiquated collective agreement provisions would shove them out the door,” the report reads.

The task force also concluded that Edmonton needs to improve its data collection protocols when it comes to community safety, particularly when it comes to race-based data.

“We need to gain a better understanding of the interactions happening between officers and vulnerable and racialized communities,” the report reads. “The current lack of data leaves everyone with little more than anecdotal evidence.

“Mandate the collection of race-based data. It is a waste of time and money to keep debating whether to do this. It makes sense and needs to be done, starting immediately.”

Changes to police oversight

The task force’s report issued a number of recommendations to increase accountability with regard to policing in Edmonton.

It suggests creating a regulatory college for police and peace officers similar to what other professions have. It also says the Edmonton Police Commission (EPC) needs to do more to “fully exercise its authority to
provide strong guidance and oversight to EPS, in order to drive inclusivity and anti-racism in policing.

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The report questions why the EPC does not currently fill all 12 appointments and says the public should be able to provide input once someone has been shortlisted for an appointment to the commission. It also says the EPC should be composed of members that better reflect the community.

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

The task force also raised the prospect of creating a body similar to the EPC to provide additional oversight when it comes to peace and bylaw officers.

The report also calls for more transparency with regard to the public complaints process when it comes to policing.

Reaction to the task force report

In a statement, EPS said it thanks the task force for putting together the report but said it was disappointed to find that it “focused almost exclusively on policing and enforcement when asked to examine the entirety of the social safety ecosystem.”

“Though some recommendations align with the direction EPS has taken through Vision 2020, and they will certainly help grow community safety and well-being work already underway at the service, we have significant concerns about the accuracy of the report,” EPS said.

“Many recommendations are not evidence-based or founded in research, and some have used selective comparisons.”

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Curry said it was important to note the task force has two members that represent police.

“I want to make sure it’s known that they were very useful and great and gave a lot of perspectives and context to the things we were talking about,” he said.

EPS said work on anti-racism and improving community safety is underway at the force, and noted the crime rate in Edmonton dropped by 17 per cent in 2020.

“In the coming days we will be sharing more information on this and other topics concerning the realities of policing and Edmonton’s social safety ecosystem,” EPS said.

“We look forward to speaking with city council about the task force’s report and how this conversation can be expanded to include larger, systemic change throughout all service providers in the system.”

Micki Ruth, the chair of the EPC, told Global News that some of the report’s recommendations are already being acted upon and discussed with city council, including training to create a more inclusive and diverse organizational culture.

“So it’s great to get that sort of endorsement that we’re on the right track,” she said, adding she is supportive of the idea of creating an integrated dispatch centre — “I can’t endorse that strongly enough.”

With regard to freezing funding, Ruth said she had questions about whether that would result in some tasks being assigned to someone else or being discontinued altogether.

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READ MORE: Edmonton police budget at razor-thin tipping point after cuts 

“It would be shortsighted to simply cut off money without a plan,” she said. “You can’t simply cut off the tap overnight and think that the safety of Edmonton will be in hand.

“The service and the commission look forward to working with council to examine the recommendations and go forward with all those recommendations that we can.”

Task force members will present their findings to city council on Tuesday.

Mayor Don Iveson said he would not comment on the report until after it has been presented to council.

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