Coping with COVID-19: Edmonton police chief looks back at 2021

The pandemic is "bringing some of the worst out in people," Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee told CBC News in a wide-ranging year-end interview.

‘It’s bringing some of the worst out in people,’ Dale McFee says in year-end interview

Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee sat down for a year-end interview with CBC News. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee didn't hesitate when asked in a year-end interview what he thought was the low point of 2021. 

"I think you've always got to keep COVID as the low, because it's bringing some of the worst out in people," McFee told CBC News. "COVID's exposed a lot of things that have been transpiring here for many years."

McFee said he worries about officer safety during events staged by anti-vaccine and anti-mask protesters. 

"Our protests went up to 460 from 180," McFee said. "You know, they're not all rational protests.

"Our job isn't to take a side. It's just to make sure that nobody gets hurt."

He said a Dec. 4 protest outside Build-A-Bear Workshop in West Edmonton Mall was "beyond acceptable."

"With children around," McFee said. "You just kind of wonder where the rationale is on some of this." 

The chief said that to his knowledge, none of the officers who encountered protesters during the year have contracted COVID-19.

Impact of COVID-19 on EPS staff

In mid-December, McFee said 28 Edmonton police employees were in isolation due to COVID-19. He said that at one point during 2021, 200 employees were off the job. 

"We've managed," he said. "I wouldn't say we never had not enough staff. At times people get burned out; you can't get somebody to come in on overtime … Has it been ideal? No." 

McFee said there was a $7.5-million staffing cost overrun that had to be absorbed in 2021 due to the pandemic.

A thin blue line flag flying atop the headquarters of the Edmonton Police Association. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Two employees are on leave without pay for refusing to disclose their vaccine status.

In total, 95.2 per cent of EPS staff  — 2,687 employees — are fully vaccinated.

Another 3.6 per cent — 101 civilian employees and sworn members — are paying for regular testing.

The remaining 1.1 per cent  — 31 employees — are partially vaccinated and subject to testing until they are two weeks past their second vaccination.

2021 Homicide and weapon rates 

To date in 2021, 37 homicides have been recorded in Edmonton. In 2020 there were 38 homicides in the city.

Arrests have been made in 18 of this year's cases. McFee said at least 11 of the 2021 homicides are gang-related, 12 involved a firearm and at least seven were drug-related.

Five of the deaths were related to family or domestic violence.

McFee said he worries about the number of firearms that have been seized by police from stolen vehicles or vehicles used in a crime. 

"The concerning ones are some of the random shootings — you know, the near-misses," he said. 

The number of shootings is down slightly this year. As of Dec. 17 there had been 141 reported shootings in 2021 compared to 148 to the same date in 2020.

The EPS firearms unit reported that 1,004 firearms (excluding air guns) were seized in the first 11 months of this year. 

Social media impact 

During the year-end interview, McFee expressed concern about concerted attacks made against EPS through social media. 

"I'm not going to make my decisions based on social media opinion," McFee said. "To me, that's where justice comes into disrepute and falls apart." 

Last week, city councillor Michael Janz criticized the Edmonton Police Association (EPA) for flying a thin blue line flag at its west Edmonton headquarters. Others have criticized the flag for months on Twitter. 

Sgt. Michael Elliott, president of the Edmonton Police Association, will be promoted to staff sergeant in 2022. (CBC)

The thin blue line symbol is divisive. It has appeared at white supremacist rallies south of the border. 

In a statement issued in May, EPA president Michael Elliott wrote: "The blue line flag represents support and solidarity to our fellow colleagues … The flag has no correlation to division, racism or bigotry." 

McFee said he has no control over the EPA office, but told CBC News that he can respect both sides of the debate. 

"I think both sides are sincere. I truly do," McFee said. "As a police chief, my authority and where I can make a difference is not having that worn on a uniform … and as a result, none of that has been approved." 

McFee has also come under fire recently on social media for promoting the EPA president to staff sergeant. It's led to some open speculation about a relationship between McFee and Elliott that may be too close. 

Both men rejected the premise. 

"Anybody who's seen us argue, I don't think they would see that the same way. We argue quite regularly," McFee said.

"That is somebody that's probably disgruntled or not happy for other reasons and [can't] see the forest for the trees." 

Elliott thinks the criticism of him started for a reason.

"One particular member was trying to use my promotion as an avenue to come after me because I would not fight the COVID policy," Elliott said. "I have a right to be promoted like any other member of the association."

McFee thinks Elliott deserved the promotion.

"I don't think you have to look too much further how he's had to lead an organization through many turbulent times to realize that's a form of leadership," McFee said. 

"When we're promoting on the staff-sergeant level, we're promoting for leadership, so it doesn't surprise me that he was successful."

Elliott's promotion takes effect in January. He has one year left to serve as EPA president.


Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston is an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who has covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father. You can reach her at janice.johnston@cbc.ca.