Edmonton police chief offers recommendations to combat systemic racism in policing in Canada

Edmonton’s chief of police says now is the perfect time to enact changes to address systemic racism in Canada’s police. On Friday, he addressed a federal panel to say what he thought would help.

Chief Dale McFee suggests having a mental health care worker at the dispatch centre

Chief Dale McFee says he wants to see more mental health care workers working in tandem with police. (Richard Marion/CBC)

Edmonton's chief of police says now is the time to enact changes to address systemic racism in Canada's police.

On Friday, Chief Dale McFee gave his recommendations to a House of Commons committee looking into racism in policing. Police forces across Canada have come under scrutiny for their conduct in a number of high-profile incidents involving people with mental health problems and the policing of diverse communities.

McFee said between 80 and 92 per cent of all calls are related to social issues like poverty, addiction and mental health. Because of this, he said one effective tool would be to send a mental health care worker alongside officers. 

McFee said calls related to those social services need to be dealt with differently than serious offences. 

"The first contact will be one that we obviously have to get right," he told the federal panel. 

Oakville Liberal MP Pam Damoff questioned whether police should be responding to mental health related calls at all. 

"If you look at long term care, people with Alzheimer's, there's violence that occurs there," she said, adding that staff in those facilities manage to handle those situations without police.

Damoff asked whether others could be trained to respond so police were not going to mental health calls.

But McFee said sometimes those calls can be unpredictable and that safety is paramount. 

"The reality is that there should be a screening in the dispatch centre first, where the professional mental health worker can actually make the right assessment on the call … to send the right response." 

He said Edmonton is looking at how to put mental health coordinators in the dispatch centre. 

"There's still the justice system for the serious people." McFee said. "But when it's the vulnerable people, it's a collective response that's needed."

From conversation to action

McFee also suggested combating systemic racism by focusing recruitment needs to show more diverse people with different backgrounds and making sure diversity, equity and inclusion are top priorities. 

"We have the perfect storm to create change," said McFee. "It doesn't need everybody but it needs a consortium of the willing … to move from a conversation to meaningful action." 

Chief Peter Sloly of the Ottawa Police Service echoed some of McFee's points, saying it's impossible for an officer to "wrap themselves around the vast diversity of human issues that we are being asked to go to on a 24/7, 365 basis." 

McFee emphasized that this is not the first time systemic racism has been a focus of discussion in Canada, but now it's time for leadership to commit to change. 

"How many death inquests will it take to be bold and make these changes?"