With sheriffs coming to the city, what should Calgarians expect? A look at the role sheriffs play

Twelve sheriffs will join Calgary Police Service beat and bike teams in the downtown core for a pilot project running from Feb. 27 to May 31.

Provincial government announced Tuesday they'd send 12 sheriffs to Calgary

The back of a sheriff uniform reads: 'Sheriff.'
A Calgary woman says she was stranded west of Calgary by an Alberta Sheriff after getting ticketed for an expired driver's license and vehicle registration. (CBC)

You've likely seen them if you've visited an Alberta court, government building or driven on a provincial highway. 

Sheriffs have key duties in all those places, but recently, the Alberta government redirected some of them to serve alongside municipal police services, temporarily, in Calgary and Edmonton.

The province says the redeployment is meant to help prevent and respond to crime and social disorder in both cities. 

Twelve sheriffs will join Calgary Police Service (CPS) beat and bike teams in the downtown core for a pilot project running from Feb. 27 to May 31.

At the project's completion, "all options are on the table," said Mike Ellis, the province's minister of public safety and emergency services, when it comes to ensuring Calgarians are kept safe. 

A man look into an audience.
Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Services Mike Ellis speaks at the announcement on Feb. 14, 2023. (CBC)

For those who want to know more about sheriffs in Alberta, here's a closer look at what they do, how they're held accountable and how the pilot project's success will be measured.

What do sheriffs do?

Alberta sheriffs are peace officers, not police officers. 

Peace officers can enforce specific statutes, like provincial legislation or municipal bylaws, but not the full Criminal Code like police officers do, according to the province.

They perform duties like traffic enforcement and commercial vehicle safety on provincial highways, conservation law enforcement, prisoner escort, investigation of specific property-related complaints and security at provincial courthouses and the Alberta legislature.

Each position requires a different level of education, qualifications or skills.

All Alberta sheriffs take part in a 15-week training program followed by nine months of field training. 

According to the province, the training prepares them to handle scenarios involving emergency vehicle operation, firearms, tactical communications and de-escalation techniques, among others.

A Sheriff and a police officer look into a window at the East Village Safety Hub.
Sheriffs and police officers wear different uniforms. The patches sheriffs wear are outlined in blue, whereas CPS patches are outlined in red. Sheriffs have a blue stripe on their pants, and CPS officers have a red one. (Calgary Police Service)

The authority and equipment for peace officers varies based on their role and their training.

The sheriffs participating in the pilot project are mainly coming from the Calgary area. Some are Sheriff Highway Patrol members, who do have the authority to investigate some offences in the code, like impaired driving, and others are coming from court and security services.

As the sheriffs participating in the pilot project are armed as part of their regular duties, they will be carrying guns.

Doug King, a justice studies professor with Mount Royal University, said there's another distinction.

"Police officers receive extensive training when it comes to use-of-force training, particularly deadly use-of-force training ... Sheriffs also receive that, but not to the same extent," he said.

"It's not a red flag for me … that's probably why the minister said the sheriff's job is not an enforcement job per se. It's going to be more of a support job and aiding job in terms of directing people to resources and things like that."

If there is a situation where use of force is necessary, King said he expects a CPS officer would step in.

How will this pilot work?

According to CPS Chief Constable Mark Neufeld, the sheriffs will help police officers patrol the areas with the highest needs, mostly in the downtown core. 

The service hasn't determined how they'll be scheduling shifts, but Neufeld said they'll be using internal data to find out where they're needed most and at what times.

The sheriffs will be paired with a CPS officer at all times.

A man speaks into a microphone.
CPS Chief Constable Mark Neufeld speaks at the news conference on Feb. 14, 2023. (CBC)

Supt. Rick Gardner with Alberta Sheriffs said CPS officers will be making the final decisions.

"Our role with the Calgary police will be a support role," he said in an interview with The Homestretch. "They're the police of jurisdiction."

But a dozen sheriffs doesn't add up to a ton of extra boots on the ground, King said. He also noted that the pilot project ends just after the provincial election. 

"So we should be very cautious in suggesting that this is going to solve any problems," he said.

What oversight is there over the actions of sheriffs?

Unlike Calgary police officers, Alberta Sheriffs are not investigated by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) when a serious injury or death, or allegations of police misconduct, are suspected.

Alberta Sheriffs are accountable to an independent investigative unit within the ministry of public safety and emergency services, said press secretary Dylan Topal in an email.

The unit handles "public complaints and employer-initiated complaints against sheriffs." 

However, King said as part of proposed revisions to the Alberta Police Act, sheriffs would be brought under the investigative purview of ASIRT as well.

The sheriffs will not be wearing body-worn cameras.

Two officers walk down a street.
A Calgary police officer and a sheriff walk together in southwest Calgary. (Calgary Police Service)

How is the project's success being measured?

Gardner, with Alberta Sheriffs, said he'd love to hear that Calgarians are feeling safer while living and working in the city's core.

"It'll be hard to judge exactly the success because obviously if there's an absence of bad things, people feel safer, it's hard to measure that," he said.

Neufeld said they are still putting together an evaluation framework, but there will be some metrics to pull data from, including things like officer interactions, referrals to services, connections to city programs, arrests, weapons seized and charges laid. 

The sheriffs and Calgary police will evaluate the project when it ends before deciding on any next steps.

With files from The Homestretch