Edmonton

Edmonton police to replace 'confidential' plane for $4.3 million

For nearly three decades, a fixed-wing airplane owned and operated by the Edmonton Police Service has only been discussed behind closed doors. It will soon be replaced by a $4.3-million plane.

Police-owned Cessna shrouded in secrecy for nearly 3 decades

A photo of the Edmonton police Cessna taken at the Villeneuve airport in 2016. (John Leicht)

Edmonton police are set to get a $4.3-million plane to replace an aging police aircraft that most Edmontonians didn't know existed.

For nearly three decades, the airplane owned and operated by the Edmonton Police Service had only been discussed privately, behind closed doors. 

All that changed last November at a city council committee meeting when Coun. Michael Janz asked about the plane. He said he heard about it by way of constituent complaints. 

Not only was the plane's existence confirmed at the November meeting, but an EPS member said that the purchase of a new plane had been approved by the Edmonton police commission at a cost of $4.3 million.

Janz said a few days later, the police commission contacted the mayor's office to inform them that the plane was "confidential." 

"They seemed to imply that I had broken confidentiality, to which the mayor thankfully defended me and said there's no way he could have known about it," Janz said. "The idea of a plane being confidential is just absurd to me." 

An Edmonton police spokesperson told CBC News that the 1980 fixed-wing aircraft was purchased in 1993. 

"Due to the covert nature of the aircraft, the EPS has only discussed this piece of operational equipment in private [closed meetings] with the Edmonton police commission and city council to ensure and maintain both public and officer safety," Cheryl Sheppard wrote in an email. 

But a former member of city council said he had no idea Edmonton police had a plane until this week. 

Allan Bolstad sat on council from 1992 to 2004, during the time the plane was purchased. 

Former city councillor Allan Bolstad served on council from 1992 to 2004. He did not know about the EPS plane until this week. (CBC)

"I never heard anything about a plane," Bolstad told CBC News. "I'm sure it would have been a high-profile issue if it had been made public at that time."

Bolstad said in 1993, Premier Ralph Klein had taken office with a mandate to balance the budget. He recalled city staff layoffs and belt-tightening. Now he wonders why he didn't know about the plane during his time on city council and why it stayed secret for so long. 

"I think it behooves council to look into this," Bolstad said. "To get a better description as to how they've been using it and what it's been doing. 

"I think the police have got some explaining to do."

Few Canadian municipalities have police plane 

According to the Canadian Civil Aircraft Register, Edmonton is one of only a handful of Canadian municipalities with a police-owned airplane. The public records indicate that EPS is the only Canadian municipal police force to operate a plane and two helicopters.

Ottawa Police Service has owned its Cessna since 2001. Late last year, Regina Police Service received approval to purchase a $1.2-million plane. 

Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) has owned a plane since 2009. In 2018 it purchased a 2016 Cessna for $800,000. 

A member of the SPS Air Support Unit calls the plane a "game-changer."

"We're a patrol asset. We're not trying to hide," Sgt. Wade Bourassa said. "We see our value as we get places quick and we catch the bad guys running away from the scene."

Saskatoon Police Service purchased this plane in 2018 for $800,000. (Saskatoon Police Service)

Bourassa said the SPS plane typically is up in the air for 1,200 hours each year. The annual cost to operate the Cessna is budgeted at $256,000.

Bourassa told CBC News he was aware Edmonton police had a plane, but he declined to comment on the level of secrecy surrounding the aircraft.

"I guarantee every police service in the country has covert assets that they don't want the public to know about," Bourassa said. 

'The public deserves to know'

EPS spokesperson Sheppard would not provide answers to CBC about the number of hours its airplane is flown or the annual operating budget.

Sheppard also declined to reveal when the police commission approved the purchase of the new $4.3-million plane or what kind it is.

In her original statement, Sheppard said the plane "flies frequently" and "is used for a variety of operational purposes ... including monitoring criminal flights, locating missing people and working on joint-force operations with various law enforcement partners."

She also said that the effectiveness of the plane relies heavily on the fact that it operates covertly. 

"The public deserves to know about the existence, costs, and general use cases for this aircraft and should have been informed the moment the EPS considered purchasing it," said Alex Luscombe, a PhD candidate with the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto. 

"People pay for the police in tax dollars and have a right to know about how their money is being used to further public safety initiatives and investigations," Luscombe added.

"It's just part of being a police department in a democratic society."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

With files from Natasha Riebe

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