City of Grande Prairie votes to establish its own municipal police force

Click to play video: 'City of Grande Prairie votes to establish its own municipal police force'
City of Grande Prairie votes to establish its own municipal police force
The City of Grande Prairie in northwestern Alberta voted early Tuesday to replace the RCMP with its own city police force. Quinn Ohler reports. – Mar 7, 2023

A municipality in northern Alberta had a long city council meeting Monday and decided early Tuesday it will create its own city police force that will replace the RCMP.

The 8-1 vote came after a years-long assessment of policing in Grande Prairie. The assessment included a public consultation process, a review of existing policing methods, and the creation of a transition plan.

“Grande Prairie City Council believes transitioning to a municipal police service will best serve our community and create a more locally responsive policing solution with local oversight, addressing local needs,” said Grande Prairie Mayor Jackie Clayton in a statement shared online.

“We recognize and are grateful for the service of the RCMP in Grande Prairie and everything they’ve done to serve and protect our community.

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“We look forward to working alongside the RCMP as the City of Grande Prairie transitions to a municipal police service over the next five years.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta government supports Grande Prairie idea to replace RCMP with local police'
Alberta government supports Grande Prairie idea to replace RCMP with local police

Grande Prairie is the first Alberta community to switch from the RCMP to a municipal police service since 1956.

Councillors heard the benefits to a local police force include increased local oversight, accountability and efficiency and local decision-making autonomy, improved officer recruitment and retention, increased city control over costs and reduced community policing costs that are estimated to be “less than what is expected under continued RCMP contract policing.”

The transition is expected to cost $19 million and includes a 20 per cent contingency, transitional staffing, policing equipment, fleet assets, technology, infrastructure, recruitment, training, and professional services.

Grande Prairie advocated for and received $9.7 million over two years from the province for start-up and transition funding.

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The RCMP currently provides policing services to the city of about 64,000 people.

City council heard that the 2022 budget for policing provided by RCMP (estimated expenses minus grants and revenues) was $25.8 million.

Chris Thiessen was the only Grande Prairie councillor to vote against the motion Monday.

“I just wasn’t comfortable enough with the numbers and the rushed timeline from the final report to the final decision.”

He said city administration and council had done a really good job of communicating with the public during the 3.5-year process.

“When we got the final report from MNP, we were then tasked with making a decision within two weeks.

“I think for our community, when you’re talking about a significant change, such as transitioning an entire police force from RCMP to a municipal service, it’s a big decision. It has long-term ramifications and costs and expenses.

“I wanted to provide some clarity to our public so that they’d have a better understanding of the work that was put into it, sort of the benefits — I don’t know if it would have changed the vote in the end, but I think having that extra consultation to make sure our community understands the wheres, whats, whys and hows of a very big decision for council that’s going to impact us forever, going forward, I think we owe that to our population.”

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Click to play video: 'Who should police Grande Prairie?'
Who should police Grande Prairie?

Thiessen said the community had several opportunities to provide feedback and get information during the years-long process.

“Now that the decision has been made, I just hope we made the right decision as a whole and that it goes as advertised and there are no hidden surprises.”

Thiessen also wanted to thank the RCMP members.

“I really appreciate the service that RMCP has provided to our community and throughout Canada in community policing,” he said.

“They have a hard job and they work really hard and they’ve always served our community well. I’d like to thank those members for their service.”

He also thanked them for their help during the shift to a local police service.

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“I hope we get quality members, maybe RCMP members as well,” Thieseen said. “We have to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion to make sure any member who wants to become a member of our police force, if they pass all the right tests and training, that they can serve and there won’t be any of those hidden biases among our members.”

Next, the city will seek approval from the minister of public safety to change policing models and form a municipal police service. The city will also have to pass a bylaw creating a police commission and notify the federal government of its intent to move away from RCMP, as required under the Municipal Police Service Agreement.

“It’s about saying: ‘What’s the best needs for that municipality?’” Alberta public safety minister Mike Ellis said in February.

“In some cases, there are some municipalities that have reached out to us and made it explicitly clear, saying: ‘We are content with the current model that we have.’”

Click to play video: 'Alberta budget to include money to help municipalities transition away from RCMP'
Alberta budget to include money to help municipalities transition away from RCMP

Alberta RCMP’s commanding officer released a statement Tuesday regarding Grande Prairie’s decision.

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“While we support the responsibility of municipal leaders to evaluate their community services and listen to what their citizens want and need, I and the members of the Grande Prairie RCMP detachment are naturally disappointed in this decision,” Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki said.

He said RCMP will continue to serve Grande Prairie during the multi-year transition period.

“We will be working with the City of Grande Prairie, Public Safety Canada and the Province of Alberta to establish a plan,” Zablocki said.

“Throughout this process, I have heard about the respect and appreciation the communities have for the work of our employees, and I hear that repeated around the province. Their work is valued and appreciated. Going forward, we will continue to focus on maintaining our strong partnerships in the province and on serving Grande Prairie residents and the surrounding community.

“Keeping Albertans safe and serving the people and communities of our province remains our top priority. I am proud of our employees’ hard work and dedication not only in Grande Prairie, but across the province.”

Ellis said he believes Grande Prairie’s decision to move forward with its own police force may have an impact on decisions other municipalities make regarding the issue in the future.

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“Grande Prairie did a thorough and independent study, and they came to the conclusion that this is the path that they want to do,” Ellis said.

“I think all municipalities need to go and look and see what is going to work best for them.”

A professor of criminology at the University of Alberta says he hopes municipalities consider this issue and make decisions based on socio-scientific evidence.

“It’s understandable that some municipalities would like to have greater control over the resources that are provided, over issues like accountability and all of that. Those are legitimate aspirations,” Temitope Oriola told Global News.

“But it’s important that we are very analytical and objective in reaching any conclusion.”

He added that the process of replacing the RCMP is cumbersome and requires a “degree of rigour.”

“The issue here is not just about dollars and cents, even though that is clearly important. It’s also about policies, it’s about practices, it’s about what exactly we do replace the RCMP with?”

Click to play video: 'Alberta provincial police ‘off the table’: Finance Minister Travis Toews'
Alberta provincial police ‘off the table’: Finance Minister Travis Toews

A multi-issue group called the Peace Country Progressive Alliance says some Grande Prairie residents were surprised by how quickly the decision was being made.

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“The city did a survey just before Christmas and two back-to-back sessions in January about public feedback, and, from our perspective, that’s been about it,” Dustin Archibald said.

He says on an issue this significant, as many people as possible should have their voice heard.

“We would like to see it go to a vote to the general public, the idea being that people’s voices need to be heard on a decision of this magnitude,” Archibald said.

“If we’re going to be replacing the RCMP, why not take the opportunity to invest heavily into social supports such as supporting people with addictions, supporting people with mental health (concerns)?

“Why not push as much funding, as much resources, towards those supports as we can as part of an overall enforcement model? The city has done some good work in the past. They’ve started these initiatives. We think it can be done much better, more indepth… with having the police as a backup to support these initiatives.”

The National Police Federation, the bargaining entity for Mounties below the rank of inspector, said the organization believes the decision was made without fully considering the overall transitional costs.

“This transition has been widely promoted and presented through rose-coloured glasses with little to no true consideration of overall transition costs, recruitment and retention, training, or technology and equipment,” said spokesperson Fabrice de Dongo.

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According to the City of Grande Prairie, public consultation included “stakeholder interviews with 19 internal and external parties, an online survey with 758 responses and two in-person consultation sessions with approximately 88 attendees, focus groups and presentations.”

–with files from Angela Amato, The Canadian Press

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