On Friday, Edmonton city councillors were presented with several reports and updates on various safety strategies and plans, specifically targeting crime in downtown, Chinatown and on public transit.
City manager Andre Corbould and other staff provided updates on the Transit Safety and Security Plan (which was approved by council in February), the Community Safety and Well-being Strategy (approved by council earlier this week), the city’s Anti-Racism Strategy (approved by council in February), as well as immediate actions taken to help Chinatown combat rising levels of violent crime.
“All these actions we’re taking supplement each other,” Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said. “Every action matters — from having foot patrols on transit to having police officers and social workers working together, having proper bylaws in place, not tolerating criminal activity or open drug use.
“All those things come together and help us improve safety and security in the short term and also in the long term because we’re taking very transformative steps to create more space for shelters led by Indigenous communities, supportive housing and wrap-around services,” the mayor said.
While these efforts have been months — and in some cases, years — in the making, they became even more relevant after Alberta’s justice minister sent a letter to the mayor on Thursday, requesting immediate action to combat “alarming” levels of crime in downtown, Chinatown and on transit.
The last paragraph of Tyler Shandro’s letter reads: “Within the next two weeks, I will require a public safety plan from you that will increase police response to this disorder and ensure members of the public can use Edmonton’s public transit safely.”
“I have a responsibility under the Police Act to ensure the people of Edmonton receive the law enforcement protection they deserve,” Shandro said in a news release Thursday.
He was not available for further comment, according to a UCP spokesperson, and was not made available for questions ahead of Question Period at the Alberta legislature on Thursday.
While much of the city’s work on improving safety started in January, administration and council will use some of what was in the reports Friday in its public safety plan in response to Shandro by June 9.
“The number of steps that we’re taking to improve safety and security on our LRT system, downtown, Chinatown, overall the city, have been in the works for weeks and months,” Sohi said Friday.
“I’m fully confident that we’ll be able to put that together in two weeks and present that to the minister and open a dialogue with him on what role province needs to play in order to improve safety further so we can tackle some of the root causes of crime and disorder that we’ve seen such as houselessness, mental health, addiction and poverty as well as deep trauma.”
Councillors have pointed out that responding to many of the issues that lead to social disorder — health, mental health, supportive housing, addictions — is a provincial responsibility.
“The social issues that are causing these safety issues are nothing new,” the mayor said in a news conference on Thursday afternoon.
“The disorder and crime that we’re seeing in our downtown is directly linked to the lack of provincial investments in ending houselessness, the mental health crisis, drug poisoning and addictions crisis.
“Ever since I was elected, I’ve been raising these issues with the provincial government and have been asking them to step up to help to deal with them. So far, they have neglected these asks.
Sohi said Friday he’s looking forward to presenting the city’s multi-disciplinary plan to the province.
The public safety report will include immediate 30-day actions, 60-day actions and a five-point action plan.
Administration told council the immediate safety plan for Chinatown will include $300,000, which businesses have indicated they’ll use mostly to hire private security, which owners are paying out of pocket for currently; $1,000,000 for community recovery; installing public washrooms and streetscape, clarify the work of bylaw officers, police and private security; cleaning up needles, roads and alleys; and increasing communication with businesses and social agencies.
“There’s no end date on it,” Corbould told reporters later Friday. “I have the resources to get these things done for the foreseeable future and as I indicated to council earlier today, if I need more resources for those things to continue, I’ll be back at council asking for them.”
“We’ve been working with the (Chinatown) community for a while,” Sohi said. “Some of these things have been in the works for a number of months, in some cases, a number of years.
“We also engaged back with the community over the last week. We heard a number of specific asks from them, particularly on the security issue, so we added $300,000 for supporting BIAs for private security. They also identified an inequity in the allocation of Downtown Vibrancy funding. So we’re adding another million dollars to make sure that dedicated resources are added to support vibrancy efforts in Chinatown,” the mayor said.
The report presented to council outlined next actions: a community enhancement plan, decentralizing/permitting of social services, provincial and federal advocacy, and increasing communications with businesses and social agencies.
Corbould indicated the city could push provincial and federal governments for prohibition on releasing inmates (from both provincial and federal prisons and jails) and health patients from hospitals into homelessness. He said the city could also reiterate to the province the need for minimum shelter standards.
Councillors heard the city’s plan will include increasing visibility of uniformed police and peace officers (more “boots on the ground” saturation policing) in higher-needs areas like downtown, Chinatown, Alberta Avenue and transit; creating multidisciplinary community support teams of city resources like fire, and Edmonton Police Service to address issues; and creating shared work models: standard service levels for high-risk or high-demand areas of the city.
“Enforcement is a part of this,” Corbould said.
“We hope and we want, in most cases, to get vulnerable people help, but we also require sometimes police and enforcement to deal with criminal activity in our city.
“What these joint operational teams will do is be more efficient about getting the right resource to the right situation.”
Councillor Aaron Paquette asked Corbould why this subject has caught the attention of the province at this time. The city manager replied he wasn’t certain but believes it might be a combination of “escalating crime” and the “politics at play.”
EPS Chief Dale McFee said why the province is interested in this issue isn’t the main point. He stressed this is an opportunity for in-depth discussion with the province and gives the city a chance to highlight what the EPS, police commission and city are already doing.
“No one single-handedly can solve this problem,” McFee told councillors. “What is the collective plan to get this done?
“We have the chance to bring all stakeholders to the table… whatever the reasons are,” he added.
“Let’s just get going… This is needed.”
McFee declined to speak with reporters later Friday.