Negligence, outdated policies called out in task force's report on Edmonton policing

A task force on community safety and well-being outlines 14 areas where the police and the city can start rectifying systemic racism and inequality.

Task force calls for freezing police budget and tie funding to performance

Thousands protested against systemic racism in Edmonton last summer. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Edmonton needs to dramatically improve its approach to policing and public safety, a report released Wednesday says. 

The report, from the city's task force on community safety and well-being, outlines 14 areas where the police and the city can start rectifying systemic racism and inequality. 

"Edmonton's community safety ecosystem desperately needs to be modernized," the report says.

"As a city we are flying blind when it comes to community safety — especially on race-related data about interactions that police, peace and bylaw officers have with the public. This negligence must be addressed."

The task force was formed last fall after city council heard from 142 speakers during a public hearing on racism in policing.

The public hearings were born out of protests around North American following the police-involved death of George Floyd last May in Minneapolis.

The task force is made up of 11 community members from diverse backgrounds, two city staff representatives, and two members each from the police and police commission.

Its mandate included delving into the reasons many Edmontonians are afraid to call the police and who feel unprotected by the system. 

Marni Panas, a task force member, said rebuilding trust will be necessary for those who feel they're targeted because of their race or sexual orientation.

"Would I, as a trans woman, call the police if I needed help? I don't think so and that scares the hell out of me," Panas said in a release Wednesday. "I know I am more at risk because of my identity and we need something to change."

One key recommendation is to move toward an integrated dispatch model involving police, emergency medical service, fire service, mental health services, and crisis diversion and social service partners.

Other recommendations include: 

  • building a more diverse, inclusive, anti-racist organizations through training and recruitment;
  • pursuing ways to prevent unnecessary use of force by police, peace and bylaw officers;
  • investing in public safety amenities like public washrooms and shelters;
  • creating a new regulatory college for police and peace officers.

Dr. Annette Trimbee, chair of the task force, said the findings present an opportunity for the city to make changes right away. 

"These recommendations are common sense things that Edmonton city council can start doing today," Trimbee said in a news release.

Funding and spending 

Hundreds of people at protests and at the public hearings last summer demanded the city defund police or reduce the department budget dramatically.

The task force calls for freezing the current level of police funding until the budget aligns with comparable cities like Ottawa, Winnipeg and Hamilton. 

Edmonton's per-capita police spending in 2021 is expected to be $376, compared to Ottawa's $332, Winnipeg's $363 and $229 in Hamilton.

The police operating budget for 2021 is $389 million, up from the $373 million in 2020 — according to the updated business plan posted on the police commission website. 

Funding to Edmonton police is estimated to grow $260 million over the next five years.

That money should go toward expanding key social services and other community safety needs around the clock, the report says. 

A portion of the funding should be tied to performance, it said.

Funding shouldn't be based on a multi-year arrangement but provided on a year-to-year basis, as is done for other community services. 

"Our city is spending more money each year doing the same things, in the same old ways, using the same old thinking, without seeing enough change," the report said. "This is frustrating people and harming public trust in key institutions."

Trimbee said funding for police is stable while other important services face budget freezes or cuts.

The task force calls for more crisis diversion teams and alternative police teams.

An estimated 32 per cent of calls police officers respond to involve no crime, the report said. 

"Where is the dignity in being taken away in a police car when you are in a mental health crisis?" the report said. "Our city is forcing police to step into the shoes of social workers and mental health professionals. This is unfair, ineffective and expensive."

Police disappointed

The Edmonton Police Service responded to the findings Wednesday. 

"We are disappointed the task force has focused almost exclusively on policing and enforcement," EPS said in an emailed statement.

The task force was asked to examine the entire social safety system and develop inclusive recommendations for the future of community safety and well-being in Edmonton, the statement said. 

"We have significant concerns about the accuracy of the report," it said, arguing that many recommendations are not "evidence-based or founded in research, and some have used selective comparisons."

The release said the EPS has taken steps to develop anti-racism and community safety and well-being measures in the service, and that they'd be sharing more information on topics related to policing. 

Coun. Scott McKeen said organizations, communities and the public in general need to keep talking, listening and learning from each other.

"Police have lots to learn and I hope they treat it with humility," McKeen said in an interview Wednesday. "I hope city council brings humility to this as well."

"Hearing from racialized people — that they walk out feeling very vulnerable and uncomfortable in Edmonton — that cannot "I stand, that has to change."

    City council will discuss the report's findings at a meeting April 6.