More guns, more violence, more homicides: Edmonton police chief reflects on 2020

Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee speaks to the CBC's Janice Johnston in a 2020 year-end interview.

119 people injured or killed by firearms in 2020, 30 more than in 2019

Edmonton police chief Dale McFee speaks to CBC in a year-end virtual interview. (Edmonton Police Service )

Edmonton got more violent and more deadly in 2020. 

By mid-December, there had been 35 homicides, an increase from 26 the year before. 

And there's been a dramatic increase in gun seizures and shootings. 

Police report 119 people were injured or killed by a firearm in 2020, compared to 89 victims last year. 

There's also been an eight per cent increase in firearm or replica firearm incidents — from 300 in 2019 to 325 in 2020. 

Firearms seized during the execution of an arrest warrant in December 2020. (Edmonton Police Service)

Perhaps most shocking is the use of fully automatic firearms. Five were seized by police in 2020 during five separate investigations.

Police are not able to confirm if any homicide involved an automatic firearm. Those weapons have been sent to a lab in Ottawa for testing. 

An Edmonton Police Service spokesperson said there are hundreds more weapons that still need to be tested locally. 

"We're seeing a lot of guns that shoot a lot of ammunition quickly," Chief Dale McFee said in a year-end interview with CBC News. "Regardless if you can fire 10 shots or 40 shots, it's not good." 

Edmonton police set up a new gun unit and test range to deal with the proliferation of weapons. 

"We've made a lot of arrests in this area lately," McFee said. "I can assure you that in the days and the weeks to come there's going to be a lot more. Because this is unacceptable in our city." 

Policing in a pandemic 

McFee said he's fed up with the level of violence that's been shown by some who reject mandatory mask mandates during the pandemic.

"People are getting criminal records as a result of not putting on a mask and complying with the rules because they put it over the deep end and made it about themselves," McFee said. 

He recently told the police commission about 39 criminal charges that had been laid against anti-maskers. Two of the incidents involved suspects allegedly attacking security officers at Edmonton hospitals after refusing to wear masks. 

"Some of them even get their friends to videotape them to see how they're being dealt with," he said.

 "That's just ridiculous."

EPS staff have been personally affected by COVID-19. When he was interviewed in mid-December, McFee said 29 people had tested positive and up to 140 were in isolation. 

He's also been unable to see his mother because of the pandemic. 

"I haven't been able to see her for seven weeks because she's in a senior care home in memory care. They have COVID," McFee said. "At some point, we need to realize that if we actually comply and slow this down the quicker we get back to normal." 

Budget crunch 

The other challenge facing the police service is money. Less revenue is coming in due to the pandemic. Fewer cars are being towed, fewer tickets are being issued and demand for special-event policing has dropped.

At the same time, EPS fulfilled some long-awaited capital projects with the delivery of a $500,000 armoured vehicle, a $370,000 truck that will be used as a mobile command centre and new drones. 

The police operating budget for 2020 is roughly $373 million. It increased by about $16 million for 2021. But EPS will have to absorb an $11-million budget cut over the next two years.

After a summer of hearings and calls to defund the police, city council will divert those funds to social welfare agencies dealing with addiction, poverty and homelessness. 

"Some of the cutbacks we've received, we've managed that," McFee said. "Have we had to delay some things such as a recruit class? Yes. We've made other things around overtime to make sure we're being fiscally responsible. At no time do we want to jeopardize the front-line safety. 

"We're going to be OK. We're not going to let safety be in jeopardy." 


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.