Edmonton amends transit conduct bylaw to address ‘immediate’ safety, criminal, gang concerns

Click to play video: 'Edmonton council approves transit bylaw changes to improve safety'
Edmonton council approves transit bylaw changes to improve safety
After hearing that street gangs were taking over entire transit centres, Edmonton city council approved bylaw changes to prevent loitering and drug use.Breanna Karstens-Smith reports – Jun 8, 2022

In an effort to immediately address safety concerns from public transit riders, front-line transit staff and the transit workers’ union, Edmonton city council made some bylaw changes Wednesday.

Coun. Sarah Hamilton asked city administration about rumours that street-level gangs have taken over certain transit stations. City manager Andre Corbould said the city has heard that could be the case.

“I don’t want to alarm people because I think still, overwhelmingly, for people using the transit system in Edmonton, the transit system is safe. I use it many times a week,” Hamilton said after the vote.

“That being said, I’ve heard about people doing maintenance in the train station who have had to edit the colour of their sneakers because they’re being harassed by street gangs who associate that colour with something else.

“We heard a couple weeks ago in (council) chambers here that people will be doing maintenance work — say fixing a thermostat — and someone will stand there and just knock it off the wall when they’re done. That’s very intimidating behaviour.”

Story continues below advertisement

By changing the Conduct of Transit Passengers Bylaw, Corbould said the city could address a specific concern that “constantly gets raised, that’s not specifically in the current bylaw,” and would be another tool for bylaw enforcement officers to use.

It would allow transit peace officers to stop people who aren’t actually using transit from hanging around a transit station, he explained. It would make it clear to transit peace officers that they have the jurisdiction to take action, Corbould said.

“We’ve heard that not only does the public expect quick action on this but we’ve heard over the last couple of weeks that whatever changes were made maybe didn’t account for the ability of staff to feel safe in their workplace and the ability of transit passengers to feel safe in their commute,” Hamilton said.

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard about staff having nightmares about coming to work, and that breaks my heart actually because we’ve worked very hard to build a culture of safety in the city and that highlights that not everyone in this organization feels safe and they deserve that.”

The Conduct of Transit Passengers Bylaw (8353) was amended to include:

“(2) No person may inappropriately or unlawfully use, interfere with the intended use of, or cause damage to Transit Property, including but not limited to:
(a) remaining on Transit Property while engaging in behaviours or activities other than related to using Edmonton Transit Service; and
(b) visibly using a controlled substance, as defined in the Controlled Drug and Substances Act (Canada), while on Transit Property.”

Story continues below advertisement

The bylaw changes were passed in a vote of 9-3. Councillors Janz, Rutherford and Salvador voted against the amendments.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton transit workers’ union concerned over rising crime and weapon complaints'
Edmonton transit workers’ union concerned over rising crime and weapon complaints

Coun. Aaron Paquette left the meeting — which he was attending virtually all morning — for first, second and third and final readings. He was marked as absent from the corresponding votes.

During the debate, Paquette shared concerns that the enforcement powers outlined in the amendments already existed in the previous bylaw, which addressed inappropriate conduct of passengers, spitting and climbing or interfering:

  • A person shall not spit on transit property.
  • No person may, while on transit property, engage in behaviour that can reasonably be expected to interfere with the safety or comfort of others, including passengers and Edmonton Transit Service employees. (S2 Bylaw 19782)
  • A person shall not climb, damage or interfere with any transit property. (S.20, Bylaw 19712, May 3, 2021)

The loitering provision was previously deleted by city council.

Story continues below advertisement

Paquette said he was worried that point 2a in the amendment (banning people from remaining on transit property while engaging in behaviours or activities other than related to using Edmonton Transit Service) was too vague and might lead to racialized minorities being disproportionately targeted by transit peace officers or bylaw officers. Paquette said that was the problem with the loitering provision in a previous bylaw that council ended up removing.

If the changes were passed, he said, he wants the city to ensure the bylaw “will not be used in a way that looks a lot like the loitering section (was)… It was deleted because the application was found to be weighted extremely heavily on the side of a racial application.”

In some replies later on Twitter, Paquette explained his absence, saying: “I could not in good conscience cast a vote on a bylaw I thought was poorly formed. I agreed with one aspect (the drug use), but not the other as it lacked even basic clarity and therefore became, in my opinion, not ready or suitable for consideration.

“I also found much of it to be repetitive and unnecessary as our current bylaw is already crystal clear on the ability to enforce or act on specific behaviours.”

However, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi voted in favour of the bylaw changes, saying that immediate action was needed and that listening to the concerns of front-line workers, residents and riders about safety on transit was crucial.

Story continues below advertisement

“I think removing this (2a) will not give the clarity that our bylaw officers are seeking that the intended use of transit property is for people to use transit.

“They should not be hanging out there for longer periods of time causing a disturbance.”

Corbould said the intent of the bylaw changes is to target behaviour in public transit spaces; not just people’s presence in them.

Click to play video: '‘Let it be real, let it be lasting’: Siksika councillor cautiously optimistic about policing changes'
‘Let it be real, let it be lasting’: Siksika councillor cautiously optimistic about policing changes

“We should listen to our employees,” Sohi said, “and the intent of these amendments. If a vulnerable person is quietly sitting in a transit station not bothering anyone, they won’t be targeted, but if this person behaves in a way that threatens others, they become a target (of enforcement action).”

City administrators said 2a was critical to address activities such as gang gatherings, using the space in ways it wasn’t intended, and using it in ways that make other people unsafe.

Story continues below advertisement

Coun. Tim Cartmell said he’s troubled by what he’s hearing from peace officers.

“Telling us: ‘We don’t have the tools to properly move them along.’

“The criminal element that has taken up residency in our transit stations… They are deliberately trying to create chaos,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton city councillors react to transit safety report'
Edmonton city councillors react to transit safety report

“This is not about people occupying a space who get harassed by someone in uniform,” Cartmell said. “It’s about people demonstrating behaviour… and not simply occupancy. That makes a difference.”

Cartmell said the amended bylaw may still need work — refined wording, even a rewrite — but making the change now signals support to those asking for immediate action. He said the work on the bylaw can continue.

Story continues below advertisement

Coun. Erin Rutherford has already been working on a motion that’s coming back to council on Aug. 22. She urged council to wait on this vote and give the issue the time and care it needs before writing any changes into law.

“We admitted ourselves that this is piecemeal,” Rutherford said. “As someone who’s written bylaws, I do not see personally how this adds to the authority that’s already there.”

She also said this issue is one council has already been working hard on, even before the the province wrote a letter demanding the city take immediate action on transit (and downtown) safety.

Rutherford cautioned against rushing a decision based on outside pressure and to consider the implications — intended or otherwise — of the bylaw’s wording.

“Intent doesn’t equate the impact,” she said. “Sometimes we have the best intentions but still cause harm.”

Rutherford said she was disappointed with council’s decision.

“It’s disappointing to me that we’re having a knee-jerk reaction to something that was already in the works. My motion back in February specifically talked about addressing transit safety through a holistic approach… I’m disappointed that we couldn’t stay the course.”

Story continues below advertisement

She said she takes transit daily and has already seen improvements and people returning to the transit system.

While she doesn’t expect this vote to hurt the work that’s underway, Rutherford worries about the repercussions.

“I do worry about some of the unintended harm that could happen in the stopgap,” she said.

“I don’t think that this go-around way is transparent or the best approach for public trust.”

Click to play video: 'Shandro, Sohi have ‘productive’ meeting about crime and safety in downtown Edmonton'
Shandro, Sohi have ‘productive’ meeting about crime and safety in downtown Edmonton

Hamilton asked if council passing this amendment would impact the “perception of the public safety plan” the city must provide the province by Thursday.

Corbould replied: “If this is passed, it will be favourable to get acceptance of our public safety plan, but I don’t think it’s going to be the be all end all.”

Story continues below advertisement

Hamilton said the province’s request may have added urgency, but both the city and province are responding to public outcry.

“I think we hit a bit of a boiling point. I think both the city and province are responding to that.”

Sponsored content