Over the last two weeks, City Council has had a number of difficult conversations about the safety and wellbeing of our communities. Everyone should feel safe in our city. Right now, I know that is not a reality, particularly for Edmontonians in core communities, downtown, and Chinatown.
This month, Council approved our new Community Safety & Wellbeing Strategy, discussed the police funding formula, reviewed progress on transit safety, and talked about immediate actions we can take to improve safety and wellbeing alongside long-term solutions to address systemic challenges like houselessness and the opioid crisis.
This blog details some of the important conversations we have been having and explains how each item contributes to a holistic, integrated safety plan to make Edmonton a safe, secure, inclusive, and welcoming city for all.
Community Safety and Wellbeing Strategy
The Community Safety and Wellbeing Strategy forms the foundation for community safety & well-being in Edmonton. It provides a roadmap for our work to be inclusive, connected and coordinated.
The strategy has been informed by City Council direction, feedback from the community, recommendations from the Community Safety and Wellbeing Task Force, partner strategies, and the strategic direction and actions outlined in ConnectEdmonton and The City Plan.
The framework includes seven pillars. Each pillar is described below:
The active, ongoing strategy and process that seeks to identify and eliminate racism by changing systems, institutions, policies, and attitudes that perpetuate racism.
An ongoing journey and commitment to establishing and maintaining mutually respectful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. This includes awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes, and action to change behaviour.
Safe and Inclusive Spaces
City programs, services and planning contribute to the creation of safe spaces and social trust. This can include responses such as creating, reviewing, amending and repealing bylaws and policies, investing in safety of infrastructure, changing social norms, and ensuring evidence-based models are used to provide appropriate support.
Equitable Policies, Procedures, Standards and Guidelines
The design and delivery of fair and equitable policies, programs & services that facilitate the full participation of all people.
Pathways In and Out of Poverty
Using levers of advocacy, policy, funding and community-driven interventions to change the conditions that contribute to and perpetuate poverty in our city.
Crime Prevention and Crisis Intervention
Appropriate and balanced responses to community needs in the enforcement and crisis diversion ecosystem.
A complex mix of variables and factors that contribute to pimâtisiwin—’life/a good life’, and a sense of balance and connection to self, body, land, culture, community, human development and spirit.
The pillars enable strategic, intentional thinking and decision-making about actions, outcomes and measures related to community safety and wellbeing. This strategy will help guide future investments and budget decisions to ensure our approach to community safety and wellbeing is coordinated and effective.
Investing in Community Safety and Wellbeing
As part of the Community Safety and Wellbeing discussion, City Council invested $8M of redirected police funding in several actions to begin implementation of the strategy. Implementation will undoubtedly be iterative, and evolution is expected as best practices develop and learnings continue.
A few of the immediate investments I am excited about include:
Integrated Call Evaluation and Dispatch Centre
$1.5M to build and operate an integrated call evaluation and dispatch centre, with another $2.06M in annual operating costs. This is a major step towards being able to efficiently and effectively allocate resources when calls for service are made. Without integrating the call centre, we’re unable to truly divert calls where police are not required.
$1M to plan an indigenous-led shelter up to Checkpoint #2. This will advance planning and project scoping for a 30-50 bed shelter which will provide greater access to culturally appropriate supports, and serve a segment of Indigenous individuals who are not well served by the existing emergency shelter system.
Bridge Healing Project
$290,000 for a bridge healing project pilot in collaboration with Royal Alexandra Hospital emergency room using the existing third building on 160 Street and 100 Avenue. This will provide 144 patients experiencing homelessness with immediate housing and wraparound services and will be ready to start July 1, 2022.
If successful, this will be a scalable and replicable model serving some of the houseless Edmontonians with the highest servicing costs. One person experiencing chronic homelessness can cost up to $114,850 in direct and indirect costs per year in Alberta. There is a very strong argument that if we can reduce the magnitude of these costs on our healthcare system by providing housing and supports that both provincial and municipal balance sheets will be much stronger.
We have also approved a number of other initiatives such as funding for extreme weather responses, drug poisoning prevention teams, micro-grants, and more training for Peace Officers.
There is significant room for expansion of many of these investments, and I expect that as we learn more about the outcomes they achieve we will allocate further resources as appropriate.
Transit Safety and Security
Safety on transit has been a focus area for this council. Back in February, City Council approved a new Transit Safety Plan (read about it on my previous blog). Since approved, we have implemented a number of actions, and are following through on the plan.
Here are some fast FAQs on the implementation of Transit Safety Plan since it was approved on February 22, 2022:
We are in the process of training more peace officers, and in the meantime have deployed over 5000 hours of overtime staffing for Peace Officers
Public washrooms are being reopened - eleven out of eighteen will be reopened by the end of May
We have increased the number of Community Outreach Transit Teams (COTT) from two to seven
Staff have deployed naloxone 52 times in transit facilities, and we will be adding drug poisoning prevention teams through the summer
Enhanced cleaning of stations continues
Ridership has recovered by close to 70%
I have been pleased to hear from some constituents that the situation on transit is improving, but there is much more left to be done, and I continue to hear concerns about safety.
Beyond these actions, administration is also undertaking several actions related to education and awareness, including the addition of drug poisoning prevention teams, safety information boards, communication campaigns, and bystander awareness campaigns.
An amendment to our transit bylaw is also being considered that would address open drug use, and the use of transit spaces other than for transportation. In addition, we are exploring the use of fare gates as a means to restrict access to fare paying riders. I have questions about the efficacy of this approach and look forward to further conversations.
Police Funding Formula
Police are an important part of the community safety ecosystem, so I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about the Police Funding Formula and the policy discussions Council is currently having related to police funding.
Council, the Commission, and the Service
First, I want to provide some clarity on the role City Council plays when it comes to policing. The City of Edmonton does not have the power to direct Edmonton Police Services (EPS). Council appoints a Police Commission, a non-political body appointed to represent the citizens of Edmonton. The Commission provides oversight to the Edmonton Police Services who are in charge of operations.
The two levers council has for influencing policing are the approval of EPS's operating budget and the appointment of commissioners. Council does not influence how the budget is operationalized, and currently has a very limited line of sight into where those dollars are going.
Funding Formula Background
The method used to determine operating budget funding to EPS has varied over the years. During deliberation of the 2016-2018 operating budget, Council established a police funding formula which functionally accounted for inflation and population growth. This was a novel approach when first implemented with the goal of providing long-term financial certainty and stability for planning and operations.
However, in practice, since the introduction of the formula, police funding increases have far exceeded every other department in the City of Edmonton.
The funding formula approach has provided little accountability and transparency. Under the formula, it has been stated that City Council has been cutting the police budget, when in fact their budget increased, but by less than the formula dictated. This was while many other departments experienced cuts.
Policing is a core service that Edmontonians expect, but no department should be entitled to ongoing funding increases without clear metrics, outcomes, data, and accountability. I want to ensure that the dollars being spent are delivering a good return on investment for Edmontonians, who expect value for tax dollars, decreased crime, and improvements to community safety and wellbeing.
Formula or No Formula
The funding formula discussion is at a crossroads. The original formula is a non-starter, and we are presented with effectively three options:
Alignment with Existing Civic Department Budget Process
A Revised Funding Formula
Interim Approach - Freeze Funding Levels or Declining Funding
The current budget process for all other civic departments provides four years of relative certainty, with budget packages brought forward for council consideration. Based on discussions so far, I do not see why police funding should not go through the same process. The regular budget process provides room for line items to be justified and questions asked about expected outcomes and return on investment.
Edmontonians expect us to deliver policing as a basic, core service and to adequately fund EPS. They also expect us to make sure that we are getting a good return on our investment, and that that investment results in safer communities for all Edmontonians.
There is an expectation that as a council we apply a high degree of rigour to every decision we make, especially to the biggest line item in our budget. I think we have to be asking: where are we sending our dollars, and are we all better off for it? What are the outcomes we are trying to achieve and is this investment going to get us there?
All that being said, regardless of the formula versus no formula debate, the challenge remains that once City Council approves a funding package for the police, who for example, might indicate they will increase patrols downtown, there is no guarantee that that happens, or that it happens for the duration that was proposed. This challenge exists with or without a formula.
I look forward to further discussions about the best way forward that will provide greater accountability and transparency while ensuring EPS is adequately resourced.
As you likely saw in the news, the Minister of Justice sent a letter to the Mayor expressing concern over the state of crime in downtown and on our transit system, calling for a safety plan that will increase police response to disorder.
I am pleased the province has finally taken an interest in some of the challenges we are facing on our streets. Community safety and well-being is a shared responsibility, and has been a priority for this Council since day one. City administration has been working hard on these issues for many months, and it is clear that this body of work demands intergovernmental collaboration.
I think the Minister's recent engagement is an opportunity to relay that many of the challenges we are seeing are largely due to provincial policy decisions like inadequate funding for supportive housing and shelters, and closing safe consumption sites. Many of those challenges can’t simply be solved with more policing.
Furthermore, as outlined above, Council is not able to direct police operations. We approve the budget, but increasing police response and directing the deployment of resources is not within our authority.
Under the Police Act, the Minister may intervene if he makes the determination that a municipality is not providing or maintaining adequate and effective policing services. This prompted his letter which directs us to increase police response. Per-capita we have one of the most well resourced police departments in Canada, so the question of adequately resourcing EPS appears to be satisfied.
Resources are one thing, but it is what those resources are used for that determines results. Furthermore, I am not convinced that any amount of police funding will resolve the root causes of a significant amount of the social disorder in downtown and on transit - the opioid crisis, mental health challenges, and houselessness need to be addressed.
I hope this is an opportunity for the minister to reflect on some of the decisions that have been made during the government’s term, and to review the work we have had underway for months. It is clear that the City of Edmonton has been, and will continue to prioritize community safety and wellbeing - both immediate actions, and long-term systemic solutions that address root causes.
A Holistic Approach
This blog just scratches the surface of our shift towards a more holistic approach to community safety and well-being. Community safety and well-being touches almost every aspect of our social safety net, as well as many areas not traditionally considered in narratives around crime and social disorder.
I will continue to have an eye towards diversion and de-tasking our police service so that they can spend their time doing police work. We must continue to take an ecosystem approach that prioritizes coordination, collaboration, efficiency, and effectiveness to ensure the right resources are available at the right time, and the right people are responding to the right calls.
I look forward to supporting the implementation of the Community Safety and Wellbeing Strategy, adjusting and adapting our approach to transit safety, and engaging in further dialogue about the police funding formula.
Written by: Ashley Salvador