'Why do you need 4 officers?' Edmonton woman questions police interaction with man outside McDonald's

An Edmonton woman is raising concerns about how vulnerable people are policed after witnessing what she called an intimidating interaction between officers and a man she believed to be homeless.

Chelsea Vowel thought man was homeless; she bought him coffee and food

Chelsea Vowel says a man was eating near this LRT barricade when four police officers approached him and asked him to leave. (Anna McMillan/CBC)

An Edmonton woman is raising concerns about how vulnerable people are policed after witnessing what she called an intimidating interaction between offices and a man she believed to be homeless.

Chelsea Vowel was on her way into the McDonald's near Kingsway Mall on Wednesday morning when she walked by a man outside the business. She asked if he wanted a coffee and some food, and brought it out to him before going back inside to buy her own meal.

Shortly after, Vowel said a customer told her police were "hassling" the man.

"I was afraid for him," Vowel said. "I just wanted to go out there and be a witness and see how he was doing."

When she went outside, Vowel said she saw four officers standing around the man, who was sitting on an LRT barricade beside the McDonald's parking lot.

"Who needs four policemen to deal with one guy who's eating a meal?" she said.

"Why do you need four officers?"

Vowel took a video toward the end of the interaction. The camera is pointed toward the man's feet, but officers can be heard saying they were inside the McDonald's for a while, and saw him loitering and panhandling.

"All the businesses around here … they come down on us and they're like, 'Why aren't you guys doing your job, kicking these guys out?'" one officer said. "We're getting yelled at from everybody."

Vowel said the man didn't ask her for food or money, and she communicated that to the officers.

"They started listing off all of the things they could charge him with, and that seemed a bit over the top," she said.

Balancing complaints and concerns

In an emailed statement, Edmonton police spokesperson Cheryl Voordenhout said police have received requests to manage panhandling at the McDonald's.

"Officers have the difficult job of balancing the concerns of business owners and customers with sensitivity around the complex challenges faced by individuals who are panhandling. In a case like this, officers must uphold the law, and will do so with a conversation rather than a ticket whenever possible," she wrote.

"Typically, officers will spend some time interacting with the person and talking to them about appropriate social services that may be able to help them. In this case, officers diverted their attention to answer concerns raised by a bystander, while the subject individual left the interaction."

Elliott Tanti, Boyle Street Community Services communications lead, says Edmonton police work with inner-city agencies to support vulnerable populations. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)

Boyle Street Community Services spokesperson Elliott Tanti said these types of interactions are most effective with fewer police and a friendly, intimate discourse.

"Those are all strategies and conversations that we have regularly with police, and police are vital to the work that we do," he said.

Tanti said it's rare to see more than two officers approach someone who's panhandling, and the conversations are usually gentle.

"Police know that the more officers that are involved in a situation, generally it has the chance of escalating situations — just as a third-party intervener walking in in these situations can escalate," he said.

We need to deal with panhandling in a different way.- Chelsea Vowel

If people see a concerning police interaction, Tanti recommends they stand back and document it instead of inserting themselves into the situation.

Vowel said she was wary of escalating the interaction at McDonald's, but stands by her decision to intervene.

She said it's crucial to explore the underlying reasons for homelessness. In particular, she said it's important to question why so many Indigenous people, like the man in the video, are homeless on their own lands.

"We need to deal with panhandling in a different way, in a more compassionate way. And police officers are not social workers," said Vowel, who is Métis.

"Being homeless and ... needing money and needing food shouldn't be criminalized."

About the Author

Anna McMillan


Anna McMillan is a reporter at CBC Edmonton. You can reach her at anna.mcmillan@cbc.ca


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.