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Sheriffs in downtown Edmonton ‘not at all an answer to community wellbeing’: housing advocate

Click to play video: 'Community advocates question if more police in downtown Edmonton will solve social disorder'
Community advocates question if more police in downtown Edmonton will solve social disorder
A larger police presence is coming to central Edmonton, where Alberta Sheriffs will be working alongside EPS — but advocates who work with homeless and vulnerable populations say it won't necessarily help with social disorder in the area. As Morgan Black reports, health and income supports are cited as more effective solutions. – Feb 2, 2023

An Edmonton housing advocate says the province’s plan to add Alberta Sheriffs to Edmonton police patrols downtown will just move the issues around and won’t solve anything.

“We are spending more money chasing something that is not at all an answer to community wellbeing,” said Jim Gurnett with the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness.

“All that more enforcement does on the streets is it either hides or moves around a problem, but it makes no contribution to resolving the problem.

“The problem is clearly that there are not enough places for people to live safely and affordably and securely,” Gurnett added.

“Sheriffs simply add to the stress of people who are already struggling to get through life.”

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On Wednesday, the Alberta government, alongside the Edmonton Police Service, announced a 15-week pilot project “to help deter and respond to crime and social disorder” in the city’s core.

The partnership will see 12 Alberta Sheriffs work with EPS officers “alongside the Healthy Streets Operations Centre.”

“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.

Click to play video: 'Alberta Sheriffs to start patrolling central Edmonton streets'
Alberta Sheriffs to start patrolling central Edmonton streets

“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.”

The project is set to start later in February.

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“My concern is whether people that are being used in the work of dealing with problems on the street really have any clear distinction or skill between whether they’re simply moving along struggling homeless people or those who might be dealing with severe mental illness problems, or whether they’re dealing with real criminals,” Gurnett said.

“I don’t think anyone would disagree (that) we would like to see an end to real criminal activity.

“The vulnerability of struggling people on the streets to organized gangs and criminal activity is very high,” he added. “It’s much more dangerous for them than it is for us.”

Dr. Cheryl Forchuk, a former psychiatric nurse and researcher who was in Edmonton for a national homelessness forum, is very concerned about criminalization.

“It’s incredibly difficult to get out of homelessness,” she said.

“It increases the risk of criminalization. If you can’t buy a sandwich — you can’t give up the habit of eating. You can get some food, for example, at shelters or food programs, but it’s unlikely to provide you three meals a day — so it puts people really at risk of criminalization and being very vulnerable to groups that would offer less-than-legal alternate means of employment.”

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Click to play video: 'New affordable housing units in south Edmonton changing lives for residents'
New affordable housing units in south Edmonton changing lives for residents

On top of that, regions’ approaches to things like access to public bathrooms and their degree of enforcement can lead to charges or tickets for public urination, she explained. The way other issues like loitering or panhandling are addressed can also criminalize homelessness, Forchuk pointed out.

“Different provinces have different bad policies.”

When asked for her response to Alberta’s plan to have 12 sheriffs work with Edmonton police officers to address crime and social disorder in the city’s core, Forchuk was blunt.

“It would probably be a lot cheaper to give them the money to buy a sandwich, so they don’t have to steal it.”

Click to play video: 'Edmonton City council votes to cover cost of city safety plan after Chinatown killings'
Edmonton City council votes to cover cost of city safety plan after Chinatown killings

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.

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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.

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, violent crime has gone up by 17.9 per cent in Edmonton between 2017 and 2022, and went up 16.4 per cent between 2021 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.

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“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.”

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

— With files from Meaghan Archer, Global News

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