Edmonton city councillors are once again debating how the police budget will be determined going forward.
On Wednesday, administration proposed three options:
#1: Create the police budget annually, like most other city departments
#2: Create a new, revised multi-year funding formula (potentially tied to police performance)
#3: Keep EPS budget frozen (or reduce it) and make the long-term funding decision later
The previous city council essentially froze the Edmonton Police Service budget and withheld $22 million that the EPS was expecting as part of a budget increase. Instead, that money was put towards community safety and social agency initiatives.
“When I look at the police budget for the past… few years, from 2019-2022, the police budget has increased,” Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said. “The police budget has not gone down. I think there’s a misperception out there.
“It’s gone up by almost two per cent,” he said. “We need to make sure Edmontonians understand that.”
The EPS budget was put even more in the spotlight during demonstrations connected with the Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements, which generated a larger public discourse about police funding and conduct.
Several stakeholders spoke to committee on Wednesday, including Police Chief Dale McFee, Shalini Sinha with the city’s Anti-Racism Strategy, Robert Houle with the community safety and well-being task force Safer For All, and Alexandra Hryciw with the Downtown Recovery Coalition.
Administration, which recommended option 2, outlined the pros and cons for each option. City staff did not recommend an annual amount, saying that decision is up to city council.
The mayor said Wednesday afternoon he was struggling with this decision and felt “polarization” on this issue.
“Who should be responding to what?” Sohi said, referring to one of the questions in front of committee members.
“Yes, we need to figure out a way… the right people should be responding to the right needs.
“Like, having police respond to some of the social issues that can be dealt by social workers. This is the debate that’s going on. And I have questions around that, like how we make that happen.”
Coun. Michael Janz said the city and the police service is “hampered by outdated legislation” and suggested police, the police commission and council send a joint letter to the province urging Police Act reform.
Policing is currently the most expensive thing Edmontonians pay for through taxes. The EPS budget for 2022 is $407-million.
“We want to have the best police service that’s able to keep our community safe and able to respond as quickly to the issues that pose serious harm to individuals, to the community,” Sohi said. “But at the same time, should we have police officers respond to non-violent or non-threatening situations?”
Administration said the city committee didn’t have to make a decision on Wednesday.
Discussions continued into the afternoon, when Coun. Erin Rutherford put forward a motion to recommend city council provide EPS with $385 million for base operating funding in 2023, on an ongoing basis.
The amount did not include funding for traffic safety and automated enforcement reserve, which has held steady at $22.3 million since 2019.
Police commission chair John McDougall spoke against the motion in council chambers, saying the $385-million number is “arbitrary” and that council assigning it “cuts the legs out from under the commission and it is usurping our role.”
The committee vote passed 3-2.
— With files from Dan Grummett, Global News