How Edmonton's city staff and police fight crime on the LRT
Edmonton police's LRT beat team and predictive technology have helped decrease crime by more than 50 per cent
Reports of violent crime on Edmonton's LRT system have dropped by more than half since 2015, when a pilot project started to put more police officers on the trains.
Statistics from the Edmonton Police Service show 114 reports of violent crimes at transit centres and LRT platforms across the city in 2016, compared with 270 violent crimes reported in 2015.
The 2015 statistics also included crimes committed within 50 metres of the LRT platforms.
Among the violent crimes listed in the statistics were assault, family violence, harassment, homicide, kidnapping, robbery and sexual assaults.
The decrease in reported crimes coincides with an EPS pilot program started in 2015, which put an LRT beat team together to patrol the system. In 2016, a full-time beat team was assigned, consisting of nine officers.
Const. Stephen Garner, a member of the LRT beat team, said having officers dedicated to the LRT has been a big reason for the decrease in crime.
"When the police are deployed in a focused area … and there is a consistent presence, I think, like in any neighbourhood, that crime will be affected," Garner said.
He said patrolling the LRT allows officers to engage with the community.
"When you're in a police car, there's a physical barrier between you and other people in traffic," he said. "[Here] we're up close, we're riding trains with people."
Garner said there isn't a particular LRT station where more crime is expected to happen, as shown by the variance in statistics. "The LRT is so fluid," he said, "and you can move so easily and very quickly across the city."
Beat team controversies
Transit teams on the LRT hit some snags in the past year. A homeless Indigenous man was arrested for selling drugs to an undercover EPS officer on Jan. 20, but his case was thrown out after the judge ruled the arrest constituted entrapment.
In April, a video posted to social media showed a city peace officer punching a teenager who was aggressive toward two members of the public. The teen had been already pinned down because he was a suspect in a stabbing near the station.
In September, during the National Gathering of Elders, two Edmonton police officers asked a woman and her son for proof of payment on the LRT. The woman, who was attending the event, had a free pass for the event. The officers were not aware of the free passes. Event organizers asked EPS for an apology for the way the woman was treated. Const. Garner was one of the officers involved in that event.
The victims of all three events were people of colour.
Garner said he thinks the beat team does more good than harm. "We don't target vulnerable people at all," he said. "We're not there to arbitrarily stop people or stop people without a reason.
"We're there to make sure that they're safe."
Technology to predict crime
The LRT beat team offers the most direct correlation to the decrease in violent crime on the LRT. But initiatives from the city may have also played a role.
In 2008, new technology was introduced to help city peace officers predict where higher rates of crime might occur, using data from previous years.
The algorithm was spearheaded by Stephane Contré, who is now the city's chief analytics officer. Its main goal was to help transit officers be less reactive, meaning called to service, and more proactive by being in the area while a crime is in progress.
"It was based on looking at social disorder incidents on transit and trying to forecast where and when they were likely to occur," Contré said.
Information about past events handled by transit peace officers was fed into the algorithm. The program then issued a daily heat map showing where and when crimes were likely to occur.
Officers collect a lot of information, but only some was put into the program — the type of incident, the day, month and year, the time and the location. Other information, such as gender and race, was not used in the program.
Contré said the program has been a huge help for transit officers since it was first implemented. The program increased the number of proactive events in the city by 50 per cent and decreased the number of reactive events by 50 per cent.
"It's like fishing with a fishfinder in terms of enforcement," Contré said. "It really helps narrow down the search and maximize our resources."
Though Contré said the city has squeezed all it can out of the model, the work still puts Edmonton at the forefront of the implemented technology.
"Comparing the work that Edmonton has done to cities like Chicago, Boston, New York, we're definitely at the top shelf," he said.
Preparing for attacks
Both Garner and Contré agree the LRT has become safer in the past two years, and Edmontonians seem to agree. According to 2015 data from the city, 86 per cent of those surveyed said they were at least satisfied with their personal safety on the LRT (meaning they gave a satisfaction rating of at least seven out of 10). In 2016, the number was 85 per cent.
But Chuck Van Deel Piepers, the director of safety and security for Edmonton Transit, said the city is still looking at ways to improve.
Van Deel Piepers said after a truck attack that injured five people in October, the city has to prepare for similar events, especially as the city continues to grow.
"This world is changing daily, and so we have to react and be able to respond," Van Deel Piepers said.
As LRT expansion continues, Van Deel Piepers said they hope for more transit officers to help cover the entire line effectively. He said one of the biggest challenges going forward is working with the resources they have.
"One of the things I think Mr. and Mrs. Citizen will say is, they'd like to see more Edmonton police services on every corner," he said. "It's about us taking a look at how we can have a greater presence out there, based on the economy and the budget dollars that we have."
Though he's looking for ways to improve how transit is policed, he said the city is prepared for more people and transit stations.
"It's safe to say that the City of Edmonton is ready, to best we can, for anything to be thrown at us," he said. "There's always the unknown. But there are a lot of professionals [who work for] this city."