Edmonton city council considers role of police in social problems
Police officer says team response with social worker works incredibly well
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson says the question before city council is how to best achieve public safety for police and the communities they interact with, as elected officials consider the future of policing in Edmonton.
His comments come on the third day of a public hearing where most presenters continued to speak in favour of redirecting police funding into community-led programs.
"I think the question before us is what is the right optimization within the roughly $400 million that our city invests in community safety between prevention and community work and keeping the peace, and policing and peace officer response," Iveson told reporters after listening to multiple presentations.
He says council needs to put in place the right preventive supports to reduce demand on police as well as providing proper oversight to assure community members that racism won't be tolerated.
"This is a broad and systemic set of questions that also touch on systemic racism in our society which is real and we've heard powerful testimony to that effect."
With 140 Edmontonians registered to speak, discussion Wednesday morning largely focused on what role — if any — police should play in responding to calls around domestic violence and mental health.
Social issues amount to 30 per cent of calls responded to by the Edmonton Police Service.
'Ensure that all parties are safe'
EPS Sgt. Curtis Hoople, president of the Alberta Federation of Police Associations, said teaming up with a social worker to check on children at risk is a partnership that works well.
"We went to numerous calls where there was that element of violence or risk to the people that were either in the residence, to the children, or to the social worker," Hoople said.
"So the police officer is that element in that partnership to ensure that all parties are safe. But the social worker or the child worker does a lot of the heavy lifting, once that determination is made."
Hoople warned that drastically cutting the police budget would have dire consequences on recruitment and the workload and mental health of officers.
Asked if recruits are trained in historical trauma, Hoople said Indigenous families share their stories with Edmonton's newest members about previous interactions with police officers.
"It gives that recruit an idea as to what are the challenges they're going to be faced with when they go out and police these communities," said Hoople.
But other presenters argued that social welfare calls are better left to experts in trauma with first-hand knowledge of impacted communities.
Tiffany Walsh, who has worked in different shelters, said the presence of a police officer tends to escalate situations involving domestic violence or mental health crises where her clients are often Indigenous.
"All of a sudden their guard kind of goes up and they're a little terrified because you know sometimes these survivors may have outstanding warrants for other things that are a direct result of poverty," Walsh said.
She said it's the reason many victims don't call police.
We're not often eager to involve the Edmonton Police Service because the majority of our participants would then be being punished for the things that they need help with.- Chantelle Phillips, addictions counsellor
Chantelle Phillips, a mental health and addictions counsellor called for in-depth training — drawing on the expertise of trauma specialists and mental health psychiatrists — for police officers working with non-white populations.
"I have participants on a daily basis who are dealing with every kind of trauma and mental health issues and substance use issues and homelessness and … we're not often eager to involve the Edmonton Police Service because the majority of our participants would then be being punished for the things that they need help with," said Phillips, who also favours a divestment in policing.
But council also heard warnings that anti-racism training for police officers only goes so far.
"if a person consciously learns about systemic racist harm it does not change their reflexive behaviour when they are under stress" said Skye Perry, who told council she's been doing neurological research for the past five years.
"They are reacting based on lower brain hierarchy rules and those rules are violent."
Perry said marginalized Edmontonians must be protected by taking power away from police and giving tools to the organizations with the expertise to support them.
The mayor thanked community members for bravely sharing their experiences "because they do speak to the need for broader systemic change as well as fresh thinking about our approach to community safety.
"I know that this work is not easy for them, particularly those of whom are speaking to us about traumatic personal experience and I am personally moved by their courage."
Iveson expressed support for police and peace officers who say they are experiencing an increase in non-compliance and abuse from the public.
"I empathize with that with that challenge that the members are experiencing and would ask all members of our public to continue to respect all people who are in public service on their behalf and to treat them accordingly," Iveson said.
The hearing will stretch into next week with a list of presenters that has grown to 140.