City council considers community calls to overhaul policing in Edmonton

Edmonton city council will consider community proposals to overhaul policing that could eventually see the police budget frozen and some funding redirected to community-based initiatives.  

Police chief says defunding could cost the city hundreds of jobs, set back progress

Thousands gathered at the Alberta legislature on Friday for a demonstration against anti-Black racism and police brutality. (Jordan Omstead/CBC)

Edmonton city council will consider community proposals to overhaul policing that could eventually see the police budget frozen and some funding redirected to community-based initiatives. 

Council wants a report about models that could redirect funds from police to the community and will use that when it decides this fall whether to freeze the 2021 police budget at 2020 levels.

The initiative — to be debated at a future public hearing — was agreed to at a meeting Wednesday, just over two weeks after George Floyd died in the custody of Minneapolis police sparking protests against police brutality across North America.

More than 100,000 people have watched a digital rally held in Edmonton while 10,000 demonstrators protested anti-Black racism on Friday at the legislature.

At Wednesday's meeting, Mayor Don Iveson said he had received 10,000 emails from local advocates calling for an already approved $75-million boost in police funding over the next four years to be reinvested in community programs.

Iveson said he wants to learn more about the idea and hear discussion about what changing the funding model would actually mean.

"In principle council agrees — we'd like to do more prevention and less reaction," he said. "There's a spectrum of views and council has to determine where we might want to wind up on that spectrum, if we want to move there.

"But that is a set of decisions thoughtfully taken over time based on data and evidence and rich community engagement."

Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on policing on Monday.

'Undo much of what we accomplished'

At Wednesday's meeting, police Chief Dale McFee laid out the consequences of a $75-million budget cut for a service already strained by the demands of COVID-19.

"We would have to cut 500 officers at a time when most of our communities have stated they would like more visibility," McFee said.

Due to union rules, McFee said, the layoffs would impact the newest hires where the the focus has increasingly been on diversifying personnel whether through sexual preference, skin colour, gender, language, education or expertise.

"This is the future of our police service," said McFee. "These moves have all been made within the last year to ensure that we have the knowledge and talent to drive the right change.

"This would be gone if you ask me how that would play out. I would say it would take us back many years and undo much of what we accomplished in the last few years, and in particular the last year."

Despite the downturn in the economy, McFee said the service has completed a strategic plan that included restructuring the entire organization to focus on reducing demand.

McFee also defended the use of street checks — which he considers different than carding — as city council seeks clarity from the province on the law and policy around the practice.

Iveson will write to the province advocating for an independent body like the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team to handle public complaints about police conduct, a move McFee said he would support.

In the past week, two videos of arrests by EPS officers have raised questions about the use of restraint and force.

But McFee reiterated his stance Wednesday that body cameras were not a good investment, citing 70 evaluations and studies that show they do not improve accountability and community relations.

He expressed support for dash cams in cars to capture images of both officers and citizens.

"We've already started this work," he said. "We're hoping to have this done in the next 18 months."

Council's motion also seeks information on better options to hold transit peace officers to account for excessive use of force that would include an arm's length oversight body.

'Unfair, unlawful, unjust and concerning'

Asked about street checks after the meeting, Iveson said for people who experience them they still feel like "psychological detention and therefore unfair, unlawful, unjust and concerning," which compromises community confidence in policing.

"So clearly the police need to have some mechanism to approach people of interest in an active investigation and circumstances under which they can ask them questions and ask them to produce ID," Iveson said. "The circumstances around that, I think, need to still be more clearly defined to the satisfaction of Edmontonians who are disproportionately experiencing this practice and are raising real concerns with us around it."

Earlier this week, Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer announced he would speed up work to modernize the Police Act to "ensure we have the governance framework and policies in place so Albertans are confident that our police are accountable."

"As part of this work, police checks will be examined," the minister's press secretary, Jonah Mozeson, said Wednesday in a message sent to city council and shared with CBC.

"Policing only works when citizens feel assured that law enforcement is going to treat them reasonably and fairly," Mozeson said.

In question period, Opposition Leader Rachel Notley called on the government to establish a panel that includes Indigenous leaders and Black Lives Matter and to hold public hearings.

Schweitzer said the government is working on an engagement strategy that will allow for broad consultation of leadership in Indigenous and racialized communities "making sure that we hear the voices of those that came out to have their voices heard at protests across this province."