“More boots on the ground” are coming to Alberta’s two largest cities, in response to concerns over more visible violence and public disturbances in the community and along transit lines.
Between Calgary and Edmonton, the province will be funding 100 more officers for street-level enforcement.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith quoted recent statistics showing increases in criminal activity on Calgary Transit and Edmonton Transit Service LRT lines.
“So we are responding. I’m told that the most immediate response to making people safe block by block, transit station by transit station, community by community is putting more boots on the ground,” Smith said at a midday Tuesday announcement in Calgary.
Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis pointed to his experience as a Calgary Police Service officer for direction on how to respond.
“If there’s one thing that is crystal clear, it’s that having a stronger police presence is what will make our streets safe,” the minister said.
Smith also said Alberta will be providing $5 million in grants to each city to help clean transit stations of debris and garbage.
Smith made the announcement alongside Ellis, Mental Health and Addiction Minister Nicholas Milliken, Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek and police chiefs from Edmonton and Calgary.
Milliken announced 12 additional police and crisis (PACT) teams for each city, costing provincial coffers nearly $8 million.
“These teams partner police constables with mental health therapists to respond to mental health related 911 calls and provide support to officers who respond to calls where mental health challenges are identified,” Milliken said.
“Together, they assess the client’s mental health needs and determine what kind of supports are required to ensure the well-being of the individual, while also making sure the community is safe.”
Calgary’s PACT teams will double and Edmonton’s will grow from 6 to 18. The teams started as a partnership between CPS and Alberta Health Services.
While Ellis said the funding for the announced positions would all come from provincial coffers at an estimated amount of $15 million, the timeline for any of the new resources to be deployed is unclear.
Ellis said it’s up to each police service how to add the 50 additional frontline officers, whether through internal restructuring or new hires.
CPS Chief Mark Neufeld said that service targets hiring 135 new officers this year: the same number as last year and the maximum capacity at their training facilities.
“We were fortunate to have some support from the Calgary Police Commission and council, so we have some officers that we’re hiring now to increase. Basically we will hire up to the maximum plus 50, given this announcement today,” Neufeld said.
“This is such a high priority that Calgarians will see more police officers on transit and in public spaces addressing these issues right now. And then when we get all fully staffed up, everything will get normalized again.
“But for Calgarians looking for some relief, you’ll see that right away.”
Ellis noted that the objective of the announcement was to have a more visible police presence in Calgary and Edmonton, and especially on their LRT systems.
Edmonton Police Service Chief Dale McFee said the announcements – what he called “building a multidimensional response to safety” – would put the cities “in a strong position to catch up with a crisis that we have been dealing with for some time.”
“Although we talked lots in the province and in this country about social issues, including myself, such as housing and mental health and addictions, and although the PACT (teams) and the cleanliness is much needed and certainly will help with those that are struggling, this is about safety and it’s about accountability,” the EPS chief said.
The police commissions for Edmonton and Calgary were not present at the announcement.
The civilian oversight bodies usually make budget submissions for their city’s police services to their city council.
Mayors welcome added officers, call for more supports
Gondek, a former police commissioner, said she was grateful to see the additional resourcing for her city.
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“As always, I will look to Calgary Police Commission to offer direction to Calgary Police Service,” the mayor said.
“To date, their oversight of CPS has resulted in greater collaboration that leads to call diversion and optimal deployment of resources, as well as a clear commitment to embed mental health experts into the crisis response model.”
She also noted Calgary has already found successes in integrating police with transit and peace officers along the CTrain line, as well as the integration between enforcement and social services providers.
At a related news conference in the province’s capital, Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi welcomed the added officers and said the root causes of the public disorder, mental health, overdoses and homelessness require more investment in wraparound services.
“These are very important investments that the provinces is making and we’ve been calling for these investments,” Sohi said. “This is a good start in acknowledging where the province is coming and saying ‘We need to do more.’
“More investments are required in treatment, in recovery, in supportive housing, in harm reduction facilities, along with the many other support systems struggling Edmontonians need.”
Edmonton’s mayor announced that city’s bystander awareness campaign would launch on Wednesday, as part of the transit safety plan approved in 2022.
“These investments will help us stabilize the situation,” Sohi said. “What we need is to continue to work on long term solutions, which include investing in the root causes.”
The provincial announcement follows a similar one made by Gondek and Neufeld in Calgary about a change in local strategy for transit safety, including increasing security and peace officers, increasing patrols and changing some transit structures.
Smith said she was “relieved” to hear about the city’s transit safety announcement.
“And I want to thank Mayor Gondek for these actions.”
Part of that Monday announcement was an ask from the mayor that the province help fund policing by reinstating the city’s share of CPS ticket revenues and adjusting the municipal policing support grant to factor in inflation and population growth.
Those requests appear to have gone unanswered on Tuesday.
In a statement, Ellis’ office said the announcements were on top of $163 million in additional funding for law enforcement and public safety in the most recent budget.
“Alberta’s government does retain a portion of revenue, which is used to fund assistance for victims of crime, law enforcement, and public safety,” Ellis’ press secretary Ethan Lecavalier-Kidney said in a statement.
“Funding for local policing remains primarily a municipal responsibility and municipalities can use their fine revenue to fund any priority.”
The Opposition NDP pointed to those reductions in policing funding as a cause for the crime-related problems that exist today.
“Soon after getting elected, the UCP took away fine revenue funding that Edmonton and Calgary used to pay for policing. The amount the UCP are announcing today is comparable to what they took away from policing in 2019,” Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley said in a statement.
“Crime and social disorder in our downtown cores has also grown due to the steep UCP cuts to affordable housing and rent supplements, which have literally pushed people out of housing and onto the streets,” Notley said, adding homelessness in Edmonton has doubled during the UCP’s first term as government.
“After four years of the UCP, we can see more people in addiction on the streets, more people with untreated mental illness, and more desperation.
“The current level of crime and social disorder is a problem the UCP helped create.”
Perceptions of safety
Mount Royal University justice studies professor Doug King said the province and cities are dealing with two matters: actual levels of crime and perceptions of crime.
“I think the public perceptions of crime are understandably alarming. And they see that it’s kind of, you know, in some ways running out of control,” King said.
“It really isn’t as bad as that. But I think you have to deal with the perceptions.”
With a myriad of factors created the changes in crime levels, King said mental health is the greatest contributor.
“We acknowledge that mental health has been an issue coming out of the pandemic for all people, but we tended to overlook the reality of these extraordinary, vulnerable people who are disconnected from society and disconnect from social service agencies, in terms of the homeless populations and other dispossessed populations,” the MRU professor said.
“I put that at number one.”
A University of Calgary community health expert said the increase in mental health issues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic was predicted, but a corresponding response from government has not materialized and pointed to some of the issues coming from “reactionary” public policy decisions that had a short-term view.
“We do not have the community based supports, the low-barrier supports. We need to respond,” Katrina Milaney, associate scientific director at the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, told Global News.
“I think the other piece of it is we are seeing substantial increases in the cost of basic needs.
“So if you were on the margins before or barely making ends meet, the housing cost increases, the cost of food, costs of utilities, all of these things are increasing, continuing to increase and for sure are having an impact on people’s mental health as well.”
Milaney said while having more citizens in public spaces could mitigate crimes of public disorder, she is doubtful that “more boots on the ground” will help.
“When we look back historically, policing doesn’t reduce crime. It can just displace it. And so people who are desperate, people who are struggling, people who need services and supports may not be supported by an increased police presence,” she said.
King said the additional officers is a “really good starting point” and police services in both cities should have been adding officers well before the pandemic.
He says more should be going into their training.
“We’ve been training police officers for six months, for about 50 years. The world is different now and we need to give police officers the skills to address those issues and providing community supports through things like PACT teams is a definite, positive way to move forward.”
Road ahead for staffing up police
The chair of the Calgary Police Commission (CPC) said a number of factors have combined to create the current police staffing situation in that city, a shortage that has been a concern of the commission’s for “a few years.”
Calgary’s police civilian oversight body said previous financial restraints reduced recruitment class sizes, and increased turnover and smaller class sizes due to pandemic health measures created a “significant number” of vacancies in the past few years.
“The last two budgets we brought to city council balanced the need for more police officers with the need for our city to have a sustainable police budget by adding 59 more officers in 2022 and 2023, and an additional 71 new officers between now and 2026,” CPC chair Shawn Cornett said in a statement.
“We welcome the province’s announcement that they are willing to fund an additional 50 officers.”
The province already funds 330 CPS officers and Cornett said the additional officers should improve service levels without impacting the municipal budget.
“The province also funding additional Police and Crisis Teams is a significant step towards better helping people in crisis due to mental health, and we have requested a meeting with Minister Ellis to reiterate that, in addition to more officers, our community also wants stronger and more sustainable funding for civilian-led social supports like Calgary’s Downtown Outreach Addictions Partnership to address this crisis,” Cornett said.
Edmonton Police Commission member John McDougall said a cooperative effort between Edmonton, the province, EPS and social service providers is the “best path forward to realize the desidered safety outcomes of all.”
“The commission values outcome-based solutions that will improve community safety for Edmontonians and we recognize the full spectrum of public safety programing, the need to address crime disorder, mental health, housing and addiction crises facing our city and our province,” McDougall said. “The funding announced today is a step in the right direction for improving community safety.
“We will continue to advocate for outcome-based solutions to address the root cause of social disorder and crime in Edmonton.”