Alberta promises 275 more rural front-line officers with provincial police strategy

The Alberta government continues to make its case for a provincial police force, saying it would add hundreds of front-line officers to small detachments.

Government says proposed model would have 65 to 85 community detachments

Alberta Justice Minister Tyler Shandro, pictured here at a news conference last year, announced Tuesday that the government plans to add hundreds of police officers to rural communities. (Todd Korol/The Canadian Press)

The Alberta government continues to make its case for a provincial police force to replace RCMP, saying it would add hundreds of front-line officers to small detachments.

The United Conservative government outlined its blueprint for more police in rural Alberta today. It says 275 front-line police officers would be added to Alberta's 42 smallest detachments.

Justice Minister Tyler Shandro said that as it stands, there is no minimum number of officers at RCMP detachments. He said a made-in-Alberta police force would provide better policing for all regions, including improved response times.

"I'm often asked why the government is looking at the idea of a provincial police service and the answer is simple.… We have a duty as Alberta's government to consider whether new and innovative approaches to policing can make our community safer," Shandro said.

"We can also make access to mental health, addictions, family crisis services and other specialized police services more accessible to all communities across Alberta."

Shandro said the proposed model would have 65 to 85 community detachments that would have a minimum of 10 and a maximum of 80 officers working in them.

The plan also includes service-hub detachments with between 48 and 192 officers, as well as three urban detachments to serve larger communities and function as regional headquarters.

The report also outlines how an Alberta Police Service would extend dedicated support to self-administered First Nations police services through its service-hub detachments, making it easier for them to establish and maintain their own forces.

The Alberta government's provincial police plan could replace the RCMP, which would costs hundreds of millions to start up, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report. (David Bell/CBC)

Shandro said the idea of a provincial police force isn't something new nor should the public be concerned.

"The biggest point I would really like to drive home for all Albertans is both Quebec and Ontario have their own provincial police service and look, their provinces have not collapsed," he said.

Shandro said the RCMP, as it does in Quebec and Ontario, would continue to exist but focus on federal policing responsibilities as opposed to handing out a speeding ticket in rural Alberta.

"Cyber-terrorism, human trafficking, organized crime would be their core functions rather than concentrating on contract policing," he said.

"The RCMP, they're kind of like an FBI but they wear other hats as well, but that would be a good analogy."

The government is deciding next steps following the release of a third-party analysis last fall of the proposal for an Alberta-run provincial police force instead of using the RCMP in rural areas and some smaller cities.

Plan would cost $735M a year, report says

The PricewaterhouseCoopers report said it costs Alberta about $500 million a year for the RCMP.

Ottawa chips in $170 million under a cost-sharing agreement.

That report said if Alberta decides to go it alone, it would cost about $735 million each year, on top of $366 million in startup costs.

But it said there is potential for more cost-effective law enforcement by using existing human resources and the government's financial services to save money, and by drafting agreements with municipal forces to share specialized police services, including canine units, air support and tactical squads.

Alberta has not yet made a decision on whether to proceed but wants to have a transition plan in place if Ottawa decides to end financial support for contract policing.

"I think we have to remember ... the federal government has wanted out of that liability since the 1960s, and the opportunity in continuing to receive that subsidy, quite frankly, has a shelf life," said Shandro.

A man sits in front of a computer.
Doug King, a professor of justice studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says there are positives about the government's plan, but questions remain about costs and where new front-line officers will come from. (Submitted by Doug King)

Provincial governments in Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are also studying the feasibility of replacing the RCMP.

Earlier this year, the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) said it supports keeping the RCMP and opposes the idea of a provincial police force because it fails to demonstrate how it would increase service levels in rural areas.

Alberta Municipalities, formerly known as the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, was briefed on the plan but said it needed more time to digest the information.

But it outlined some concerns about the costs, whether there has been enough consultations, and that a provincial force should be driven by real public safety needs rather than by politics.

Paul McLauchlin, president of the RMA, said the plan announced Tuesday creates a lot of questions.

McLauchlin said he questions where the money to fund the police force would come from if the province left behind $170 million of annual federal funding. There's also the question of hiring hundreds of more officers. 

"This would be one of the largest workforce hires in North American history.… Can you actually pull that off knowing that all throughout North America right now people aren't moving and joining police forces."

McLauchlin said Shandro's comments about the province bearing transition costs do not ease his concerns.

"We don't want to spend money. We don't have to. What I hear from my members, we want to use the existing RCMP and the extra resources that are supposedly available should be put into those root causes of crime: substance abuse, poverty, mental health and judicial reform," he said.

The RMA president said the province should consult more with rural communities to see what type of change they really want when it comes to policing, and be more explicit about the exact costs of the plan.

Questions about cost and new hires

Doug King, a justice studies professor at Mount Royal University, said he has questions about the government's proposal, but Tuesday's report gave a much more detailed picture of the UCP's plan than last year's report

King said one positive about the plan is the government proposing more support for First Nations police services, which the professor said will give more autonomy to Indigenous communities to establish their own police agencies.

The report also suggested a model for police governance that would involve more community boards for oversight, which King supports.

But he questions where exactly the 275 front-line officers will come from. 

"Is that going to be 275 new officers across the total in Alberta, or are they going to take a few from, say, Red Deer and a few from Okotoks and put them into the smaller communities?" King said.

"That's unclear, and boy oh boy, the communities like Red Deer and others would like to know that because it would mean fewer officers for them."

A man wearing glasses speaking into a microphone
Alberta NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir says the UCP should drop its provincial police plan or put it to a vote in the next provincial election. (CBC)

King also said the sheer cost of establishing a new provincial police force is not a "red herring" as Minister Shandro stated at a news conference Tuesday. 

"If you went into a car dealership and were looking at a car, it had all the bells and whistles, and you said, 'Boy, that's a good looking car. How much does it cost?' and the salesperson said, 'Well, that's a red herring,' you wouldn't buy the car."

King said it's also important to remember that if the UCP goes forward with its plan, it would likely take about a decade to implement, and a lot can change in that time, including new governments with different plans.

Provincial police plan is 'a boondoggle,' NDP says

Alberta NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir said Tuesday that the government's provincial police plan "is not a blueprint. It's a boondoggle."

"Albertans want better policing in Alberta and want their government to focus on preventing crimes and addressing the root causes of crime. And what the minister has presented, nobody is asking for it," Sabir said.

The NDP MLA said the strategy would cost millions in taxpayer money, and the UCP should drop the plan.

"If they really want this … they can put this on the ballot for the next provincial election."

Sabir said the UCP should not be able to dismantle the RCMP while under investigation by the police force, referring to the police investigation into the party's 'kamikaze' campaign where donors were potentially defrauded.

Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki, commanding officer of the Alberta RCMP, said in a statement Tuesday that his police force has always been willing to work with the provincial government. 

"Our budget and staffing levels are determined by the Government of Alberta, the provincial policing priorities are developed with their oversight and approval, and we report on strategic and budget performance measurements on a regular basis," the statement said.

Zablocki said the government's plan seems "very similar to the current model of the Alberta RCMP." 

RCMP's specialized units, like forensic identification and emergency response teams, know "the geographical realities of Alberta," Zablocki said, and are placed strategically in the province.

Alberta RCMP will review the province's report in depth over the next few days, the statement said.


Bill Graveland is a Calgary-based reporter for The Canadian Press.

With files from Allison Dempster and CBC's The Homestretch