Province, EPS announce pilot program to increase officer presence in Edmonton’s downtown

Click to play video: 'Alberta Sheriffs to start patrolling central Edmonton streets'
Alberta Sheriffs to start patrolling central Edmonton streets
The Alberta government, alongside the Edmonton Police Service, have launched a 15-week pilot project that will see Alberta Sheriffs work with city police to try and address crime and violence in the inner city. Saif Kaisar reports. – Feb 1, 2023

The provincial government, alongside the Edmonton Police Service, announced a new pilot project Wednesday geared towards reducing violence in the inner city in Alberta’s capital.

The 15-week project is a partnership between the Alberta Sheriffs and EPS “to help deter and respond to crime and social disorder,” according to a news release from the province.

The pilot will see 12 sheriffs work with EPS officers “alongside the Healthy Streets Operations Centre” to address crime and social disorder in the city’s core.

“The addition of Alberta Sheriffs will enable police to expand patrols to a wider area that includes Boyle Street and McCauley, and extend coverage to seven from five days a week, 22 hours each day,” the government said in a news release.

“While officers can respond to criminal activity when needed, multi-disciplinary teams help increase community safety by addressing community concerns and preventing crime in ways that don’t necessarily involve enforcement.”

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The project is set to start later this month.

Violence in Edmonton’s downtown core hit a tipping point last year after two men were killed at two different businesses in Edmonton’s Chinatown. Police have said the man accused in their deaths is not believed to have known either victim.

More recently, on Jan. 22, police said a man walked on to the back of a city bus, found an ice pick and began vandalizing the bus and threatening passengers with the weapon.

In October, when Jason Kenney was still Alberta’s premier, the provincial government announced additional funding for mental health and addictions resources in downtown Edmonton. The plan included funding for a police and community hub in the Chinatown neighbourhood.

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A provincial task force was also assembled in December to help mitigate crime and violence downtown, yet the problems continue.

“Downtown violent crime has escalated to beyond pre-COVID levels,” an EPS spokesperson told Global News in an emailed statement Wednesday.

According to data from the EPS, violent crime in downtown Edmonton went up by 26.4 per cent between 2017 and 2022, and went up by 10.2 per cent between 2021 and 2022. Citywide, there was a 16.4 per cent increase in violent crime incidents between 2021 and 2022.

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Click to play video: 'After rough 2022, City of Edmonton funding brings hope for better year in Chinatown'
After rough 2022, City of Edmonton funding brings hope for better year in Chinatown

Citywide, violent crime has gone up by 17.9 per cent in Edmonton between 2017 and 2022.

Now the province is saying that a larger police presence in the neighbourhood is going to quell the ongoing issues.

“Edmontonians and visitors alike should feel safe in their communities, and Alberta’s government is working to make sure they are safe by putting more eyes and ears in neighbourhoods where they’re needed most,” Public Safety and Emergency Services Minister Mike Ellis said in a news release. “A larger officer presence is a direct request from EPS, Chinatown and other downtown organizations.

“Partnerships and collaborations like this are going to play a key role as the task force continues to address complex issues like public safety, homelessness, addiction and mental health.”

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Organizations that work with vulnerable Edmontonians have reported a sharp rise in homelessness across the city since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic all while first responders continue to deal with the ongoing opioid crisis and people experiencing mental health issues.

Members of the Downtown Recovery Coalition, an organization that advocates for inner-city Edmonton, said this action is something they have been asking for for several months.

Chad Helm, a street-level operator, boutique owner and coalition member, said break-ins and drug use are among the problems he sees all too frequently.

“That has to stop (in order) to bring the downtown core to a point where people — typical patrons of businesses … residents — feel safe,” he said.

“From the perspective of someone who has to look at it every day – the open use or just the state that these folks have to live in – it’s super sad.

“In my opinion… we’re not currently providing them with a compassionate, dignified existence: they’re out there, they’re cold, they’re going through issues. But there’s also an element, I believe, that gets mixed up in this where people assume that everybody in the downtown core is just down and out when it comes to people in need.”

Helm added that while he has noticed an uptick in crime in his neighbourhood, these are issues that he started to notice in 2018, before the pandemic hit.

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“Yes, this is a multi-faceted issue that needs to be addressed from all levels of government and the people that make up the community as well,” he said. “But the criminal element is huge and it’s growing.”

The sheriffs — also known as peace officers — will be operating under the Alberta Sheriffs’ existing budget.

— With files from Saif Kaisar, Global News

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