Alta. government commits nearly $10M to possible Grande Prairie city police force
'This is not an anti-RCMP sentiment,' says Grande Prairie mayor Jackie Clayton
The City of Grande Prairie is pondering the creation of a municipal police that could take over from the RCMP by 2027.
Public Safety and Emergency Services Minister Mike Ellis says the Alberta government is willing to give the northwestern Alberta city of 64,000 people $9.7 million over two years to help defray an estimated $19-million cost of making a swap.
Ellis said other, unnamed Alberta cities currently policed by RCMP are also considering a municipal or regional police service. He wouldn't give a number. The province would entertain funding those transitions, too, he said.
"This is part of a paradigm shift that's occurring in policing across Alberta," Ellis said at a Grande Prairie news conference on Wednesday. "No longer will police services be seen and used as an arm of the state. Rather, they must be an extension, or rather a reflection, of the communities that they serve."
Grande Prairie's council has not yet made a final decision about proceeding with establishing a municipal police force. Councillors are scheduled to debate the proposal at a meeting on March 6. RCMP have policed the city since 1937.
Mayor Jackie Clayton said the city began exploring the idea about two years ago, beginning with a review of local policing. In September 2022, the city commissioned MNP, paying the organization $250,000 to prepare a viability and transition study.
Clayton said Wednesday that some potential benefits of a city police service could be better recruitment and retention of officers and other staff, policing that reflects the community's priorities, and more local training opportunities.
"This is not an anti-RCMP sentiment," Clayton said. "This is about coming up with the best service that's most efficient that serves our community as great as possible."
The government's funding commitment will allow councillors to make a decision based on the best policing option for Grande Prairie, rather than worrying about the financial impact of a switch, she said. The funding is contingent on the province passing its budget, which is being presented Feb. 28.
Police recruitment challenges persist in Grande Prairie
The MNP report indicated Grande Prairie leaders are worried about the long-term viability of having the RCMP police larger municipalities, recruitment issues, the rising cost of RCMP's services and navigating the national force's bureaucracy.
Although the Grande Prairie RCMP has the budget for 110 police officers, it hasn't been fully staffed for the past five years, the report said.
The city's police's transition team is proposing a five-year transition period to a 100-officer city police service, plus 76 civilian support staff, 31 peace officers and 13 outreach workers.
The city currently pays 90 per cent of the operational costs of policing, with the federal government covering the remaining 10 per cent.
Doug King, a professor of justice studies at Calgary's Mount Royal University, says no matter who runs policing in Grande Prairie, recruitment and retention of suitable officers will continue to be a challenge — as it is across the country.
Officer pay in the city will have to be on par with Edmonton or Calgary to keep them in Grande Prairie, King said.
King likes the idea of cities having a police force with community-led priorities. However, it would mean the city taking on some specialized services it now gets from the Alberta RCMP, such as collision reconstruction, neutralizing explosives, undercover operations and underwater recovery.
King says the city will have to consider costs like recruiting a high-calibre police chief and assuming liability for any lawsuits against the police.
"It deserves its own police agency," King said, pointing to Grande Prairie's population growth. "And if they can make it happen, go ahead and do it. Just know what you're inheriting. You're inheriting many problems that you have yet to foresee."
Alberta RCMP spokesperson Fraser Logan said in a statement that the organization supports community input into local policing decisions.
"The Grande Prairie RCMP is proud to serve the residents of Grande Prairie and we remain focused on community safety and providing a professional police service to residents," he wrote.
The province's announcement comes as the United Conservative Party government continues to mull the adoption of an Alberta provincial police service.
Although Ellis' mandate later from premier Danielle Smith instructs him to work with the ministers of justice and municipal affairs to launch a provincial police service, Ellis reiterated on Wednesday the government has not made a final decision.
He said the government's decision on a provincial police service won't affect its commitment to help Grande Prairie launch a city police service, should it choose to do so. Solutions for improving public safety will be unique in different parts of the province, he said.
With files from Luke Ettinger