Edmonton

Divesting police of funding requires 'brave leadership,' Edmonton advocates say

The future of policing in Edmonton will be discussed Wednesday after more than 10,000 people sent letters calling on the city to divert $75 million from the police budget to community initiatives. 

More than 10,000 letters call on city to divert $75M from police budget

Demonstrators and police officers hug after taking a knee together at a June 5th event protesting anti-Black racism in Edmonton. 1:51

The future of policing in Edmonton will be discussed Wednesday after more than 10,000 people sent letters calling on the city to divert $75 million from the police budget to community initiatives. 

The letter, penned by a group of community advocates, called on city council to show "brave leadership"  by reallocating a $75-million increase to the 2019 police budget to affordable housing, free public transit, mental health services and community-led organizations.

"Edmonton can redefine public safety by investing in community alternatives to policing," states the letter, written by roughly a dozen local law students, academics and community organizers with support from Black Lives Matter YEG.

"We can build a city where community members, in particular Black and Indigenous community members, are not threatened by police violence."

The letter, which also suggests freezing future funding and downsizing the police force, will be discussed Wednesday when city council meets with the police commission.

Other recommendations include removing officers from schools and mental health calls and publicly posting complaints, similar to criminal court or a professional body. 

"We need brave leadership that will commit to reducing violence against our most vulnerable," the group says.

The call to defund police echoes growing sentiment across North America after video of George Floyd taking his last breaths under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sparked a wave of massive protests.

About 10,000 demonstrators turned up at the Alberta legislature Friday calling for a city that is safe for all Black Edmontonians. Earlier in the week, Black speakers at a digital rally opened up about fears of becoming another George Floyd — or even worse— seeing their child face the same fate. 

The video from Tuesday's digital rally has been viewed more than 100,000 times.

But another video that surfaced on Tuesday showed an Edmonton police officer using a knee-on-neck restraint during the 2018 arrest of a Black man as he assisted his wife after a vehicle collision. EPS defended its actions as a second video emerged of an arrest from August 2019 showing another officer drop his knee on to the back of a homeless man. 

Advocates say bias training, body cameras and civilian reviews haven't worked, while a disproportionate share of the city budget goes to policing compared to services that allow communities to thrive.

'Ready for something different'

"We are tired of Black death and we're tired of continued violence and surveillance in our communities," said Reakash Walters, a community organizer and articling student who helped write the letter.

"We're ready for something different."

Citing a CBC investigation that identified EPS as the third highest municipal police force in Canada to record fatal interactions with police, Walters said practices like carding and police in schools "brings danger, harm and over-criminalization to Edmonton's most marginalized communities."

Walters said elected officials need to acknowledge police violence inflicted on marginalized communities, commit to tangible action and work with community members on creative ways forward, rather than consulting them. 

"So many issues don't need to be criminalized — maybe we just need to invest in them," Walters said.

Community organizer Reakash Walters says redirecting funding will create safer communities for Black, Indigenous and marginalized people. (Submitted by Reakash Walters)

Police Chief Dale McFee and the mayor plan to comment after Wednesday's meeting. McFee — a proponent of street checks — has vowed to work with demonstrators who shared hugs and knelt with police during the Friday protest.

Mayor Don Iveson said the city would listen, learn and respond, but also that action will be required by the provincial and federal governments.

"That said, I do recognize there is still more we can do within the tools and resources we have available," wrote Iveson, who also proposed reactivating an anti-racism advisory committee that had been put on hold during the pandemic.

 "We cannot police ourselves out of systemic racism or societal injustices and challenges like poverty, addictions, mental health and trauma."

'Guilt about complacency'

On Monday, Coun. Michael Walters said the fact that many Edmontonians don't feel protected by police can't be ignored.

"I have some guilt about complacency that I've demonstrated in my time on council about issues like carding, which we haven't dealt with in a real way, and I need to take responsibility on that as a leader in our city," he said.

Divestment of funds could lead to the disappearance of specialized teams such as officers and social workers that respond to mental health calls, warned Michael Elliott, president of the Edmonton Police Association.

He said funding cuts could make it harder for initiatives to continue that have made policing more inclusive and led to a formal apology to members of LGBTQ2S communities and an Indigenous strategy.

The unprecedented scrutiny on law enforcement has made policing more difficult, Elliott said. One member who recently saved a woman's life said he now feels like a "walking criminal" as many ask what they did wrong.

But Elliott said members remain committed to serving Edmontonians and learning from those who are raising concerns.

"We're still here for you," Elliot said.  "We want to hear from you because if we don't … how do we move forward in a productive way?"

Social worker Dunia Nur says a community led-team response to mental health calls can avoid escalation. (Submitted by Dunia Nur)

Committee lacked resources

Dunia Nur, president of the African Canadian Civic Engagement Council (ACCEC), criticized the mayor's call to reactivate the anti-racism committee, which she helped found. 

Despite the hard work from the grassroots community members who volunteered their time and expertise, the committee did not end up with the resources, power or holistic understanding of communities to make meaningful policy recommendations, Nur said.

Instead, she said, the committee itself became a victim of the systemic racism it set out to fight.

"If you choose to ignore the people that are giving you recommendations that are not only experts in those areas but are also living the experiences ... what you're actually doing is perpetrating violence on that community," she said.

Nur, a social worker who responds to mental health calls from families and works with youth in remand, praised changes under McFee's leadership that draw on the support and expertise of community-led groups.

She said future work must include a new approach to mental health calls involving Black people where a white officer with a gun could escalate the situation.

Nur said she works with teams of Black psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers with cultural know-how — a blueprint police may want to tap into.

"If you were to ask me right now how many social workers do you know we can hire, and psychiatrist and psychologists and frontline workers. I will give you a database within Edmonton of five hundred names — and yet no one is tapping into that wealth of knowledge," Nur said.

About the Author

Andrea Huncar

Reporter

Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and the justice system. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca

now