Edmonton Police Commission report calls for better co-ordination of police, social services

A police commission report suggests the city task an entity with governing all municipal social service programs and ensuring better co-ordination with police in the wake of concerns about police funding and practices.

Audit found an estimated $7.5 billion is spent every year on social support and community services

An Edmonton Police Commission report says there needs to be better coordination of police and social services. (Codie McLachlan/CBC)

An Edmonton Police Commission report suggests the city should task an entity with governing all municipal social service programs and ensuring better co-ordination with police in the wake of concerns about police funding and practices.

Last July, city council asked the commission to explore a more "balanced approach to community safety" following public demands for major changes to policing amid complaints about systemic racism and police aggression.

"Police are often called upon to respond to complex situations that often have elements of public safety concerns but, after investigation, are found to be non-criminal in nature," said the commission's report, completed in December but publicly released Monday.

"Many of these situations, such as an individual experiencing a mental health crisis, may be more appropriately managed through a service delivery model that leverages the strengths of partners in the community."

In a statement Monday evening, commission chair Micki Ruth said "improving community safety and achieving better outcomes for all residents, including for racialized and vulnerable communities, means things must be done differently."

But she said the main issue is not a lack of funding "so much as aligning and integrating services."

Ruth said the commission's report envisions a "new public governance entity" that would be responsible for overseeing all municipal social service programs including policing.

The city could further create an agency, board, or commission that would help co-ordinate social services and it could also expand the police commission's mandate to include oversight of city peace officers, the report stated.

Coun. Tim Cartmell, who is a member of the police commission, stressed the report is a draft but said there is a need for better co-ordination of services.

"If we can find a way where we have the right resources at our fingertips so that when a [911] call comes in, the right resource can be matched to the need in that moment, then we will get to better outcomes," Cartmell said.

He cited the commission's "social impact audit," released Monday and also prepared at the direction of city council, that found an estimated $7.5 billion is spent every year on social support and community services.

That amount includes money invested in first responder budgets, charities, and social service non-governmental organizations as well as direct government cash transfers to individuals such as income support and disability payments.

'Siloed and unco-ordinated response': audit

The audit similarly called for better collaboration between police and social service agencies, stating that across Alberta, "communities are similarly challenged by the siloed and unco-ordinated response to social issues that include mental health, addiction, homelessness, and poverty."

It said a standardized approach is needed to save money, reduce duplication of services, and ensure those who need social services connect with the right resources.

At a news conference Tuesday, Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee said EPS wants the Alberta government to take the lead in restructuring the social safety net and co-ordinating its funding so that services can better meet all the needs of the community.

"If change is really what we want to see, we need the different levels of government and other service providers to align the social safety-net ecosystem, putting an end to the redundancy and overlaps that currently exist," McFee said.

He said the police service's $462-million annual budget represents only about six per cent of the $7.5 billion the report found is spent each year on social support and community services in Edmonton.

"Think about the impact $7.5 billion could have if those funds were used to bolster the system, and how much good that could do for the people who need it — all people, all our citizens," he said.

"There is only one taxpayer, and in difficult times like this, we need our money and our resources to get better outcomes."

McFee said EPS is "not just reacting to calls to defund the police." He said "moving money around" has never worked in the past, and that "system-level changes" are needed to achieve better outcomes.

The police commission's report said an agency overseeing social services could allocate city funding, establish policies for providing "efficient and effective" delivery of social services, and determine service priorities.

The agency would work closely with Alberta Health Services emergency services and mental health units to ensure the right resources are dispatched on service calls, the report said.

"It is important to note that although there could be less of a need to rely on reactionary, incident-driven responses, there continues to be a critical role for the police in triaging and responding to criminal incidents, violent situations, and for public safety issues," it said.

Alina Turner of HelpSeeker, the Calgary-based company that conducted the social impact audit, said the findings about Edmonton are not unique to the city.

"Across Alberta — in Lethbridge, Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat, Calgary — these communities are all similarly challenged by a siloed and unco-ordinated response to social issues," Turner said. "And that's specifically relevant when we speak about mental health, when we speak about addiction, homelessness and poverty."

She said the victims of an unco-ordinated approach to social services support "are actual people that are bounced around from door to door, that have to be re-traumatized every time they have to reach out for assistance and be told that this is not the right door to get that service, and the COVID pandemic has only amplified that even further."