Calgary’s downtown streets will have officers of a different stripe added to patrols: Alberta Sheriffs.
Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Services Mike Ellis made the announcement along with Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, Calgary Police Service (CPS) Chief Mark Neufeld, Alberta Sheriffs acting chief Bob Andrews and Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Nicholas Milliken Tuesday afternoon in the city’s East Village Safety Hub.
“By working together, CPS and sheriffs will patrol these communities so that people can feel safe regardless of where they are or what time of day it is,” Ellis said. “This pilot project builds on successes of CPS beats and bikes teams established to address crime and social disorder in key neighbourhoods in Calgary’s inner city.”
Gondek called the announcement of 12 sheriffs joining CPS patrols in a 12-week pilot program a “welcomed enhancement to efforts that are already underway, and is proof that true public service means building relationships and focusing on how we best meet the needs of our common constituents.”
Calgary’s police chief said he and his officers have heard concerns about social disorder and perceptions of safety in the community.
“This collaboration with the sheriffs is a valuable opportunity to augment or supplement CPS resources and deploy more uniforms into our community at a time where we’ve struggled with our own staffing shortages,” Neufeld said.
The redeployed sheriffs will provide a “reassuring and visible presence in the inner city.”
“We hope our presence and public engagement will provide a positive differences in the lives of people who live, work and visit this great city of Calgary,” Andrews said.
Ellis, a former CPS officer, said the added presence of sheriffs is in step with the already-established community policing model.
“We know that community policing is the way to build trust and order to protect the community. That’s why I fully support this pilot project, as we cannot arrest our way to improve public safety.”
He also pushed back on the idea that increasing the number of peace officers on downtown streets was a solution to complex social issues, noting more officers will not necessarily mean more arrests.
“Through this pilot project, officers are here to help – they’re here to help the community by linking vulnerable Albertans with services that they need while providing the necessary safety to the public,” Ellis said.
“Make no mistake: enforcement is an essential part of public safety.”
The Opposition balked at the announcement, saying adding sheriffs to city streets is helpful in some situations but “does not address the root causes of the challenges facing our city.”
“The UCP has offered next to nothing to support the revitalization of downtown Calgary,” Calgary-Buffalo MLA Joe Ceci said in a statement. “In fact, they’ve made a bad situation worse through the downloading of costs onto municipalities while refusing to build affordable housing or provide funding for supportive housing units.”
Perceptions and data
The metrics of success for the pilot project scheduled to end on May 31 were vague at the time of the announcement.
The public safety minister said “there will be metrics that we’re going to assess” but did not pin it to measures like decreases in crime or social disorder for the three months.
“People need to feel safe in the city and that certainly is a narrative that I have heard time and time again, whether it be in my constituency (Calgary-West) or outside of my constituency, that folks are not feeling safe,” Ellis said. “That is very subjective, but I think that that is one thing that we need to look at.”
Neufeld agreed with what he called a “common sense” approach to improvements in public safety perceptions.
“At the end of (the pilot), if we have Calgarians saying ‘I was able to travel to the public spaces, whether it be transit or wherever that I usually go, and I noticed more uniformed officers, regardless of the colour of the stripe on their pants and I had positive interactions and I saw less of the things that actually make me feel less safe in the city,’ that will be a success if we have Calgarians saying that,” the CPS chief said.
“But of course, we’re going to measure the usual things we typically measure: arrests, weapons seized, charges laid. But that’s not all.”
CPS data shows public disorder calls in communities in the city’s core and immediately surrounding area has been flat or down for the six years between the beginning of 2017 and end of 2022. The East Village is unique in seeing marked increases in social disorder calls in that same time period.
Neufeld said that kind of data will be able to help inform where and when sheriffs will be deployed with CPS officers.
“We already have the partnerships with social services and great partnerships in the city,” the police chief said. “What we really needed because of staffing shortages was to be able to stretch those uniforms and those with that visible presence a little bit farther for Calgarians.
“We want to actually add this augmentation in the times of day and in the locations that makes the most sense.”
The pilot project comes two weeks after the province announced a similar initiative in Edmonton, pairing Alberta Sheriffs with Edmonton Police Service patrols downtown for a 15-week pilot project due to start in late February.
One Edmonton housing advocate told Global News said the province’s plan for that city was not an answer to community wellbeing.
“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,” said Jim Gurnett of the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness on Feb. 2.
— with files from Emily Mertz, Global News