‘It’s time for bold leadership’: Edmontonians weigh in on police reform ahead of municipal election

· The Pulse
By Jackson Spring
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Edmontonians want future city councils to make significant changes to the Edmonton Police Service (EPS), but are divided on what those reforms should be — and whether defunding the police should be on the table.

In Taproot's fifth of eight listening sessions, more than a dozen Edmonton residents came together to discuss police budgets, and whether future councils should cut police funding.

The event was prompted by Taproot’s People's Agenda, a document that’s being compiled based on the responses to this question: What key issue do you want the candidates to talk about as they compete for votes in the 2021 municipal election, and why?

Participants in the session discussed issues of police brutality and a lack of accountability in law enforcement, as well as the recently released report from the community safety and well-being task force, which included 14 recommendations for police reform. On April 6, city council decided to adopt 13 of those recommendations.

Some Edmontonians said that council's actions haven’t been sufficient, while others agreed with the idea of focusing on reforms that do not involve defunding or freezing funding for the police.

Overall, participants at the session said that Edmonton police need greater oversight, more transparency, and that there needs to be more disciplinary measures for officers that abuse their power.

Chris Chang-Yen Phillips interviewed Rob Houle on the task force's findings and council's decision-making. (Taproot Edmonton) Chris Chang-Yen Phillips interviewed Rob Houle on the task force's findings and council's decision-making. (Taproot Edmonton)

Community safety

Those who favour defunding the police argued that funds should still go towards community safety, but that they are better served in the hands of other organizations like social work agencies or addiction services.

The police budget makes up 15% of Edmonton's operating budget — about $373 million in 2020, and it is automatically increased each year. The budget was set to increase by $75 million between 2019 and 2022, but council cut this amount by $11 million last summer in response to public demonstrations against discrimination and police brutality.

Rob Houle, the featured speaker of Taproot’s event and a member of the community safety and well-being task force, said more of this money should be diverted, since police officers lack the range of expertise required to handle all of the situations they currently respond to.

"A lot of the social services have been offloaded to police as a default," he said. "We can change the way these things are handled so that the right person goes to the right call all of the time."

Houle experienced police brutality at the hands of the EPS in 2005 — an incident he shared with councillors in a public hearing ahead of the creation of the task force. He also has worked for municipal government as an indigenous relations advisor.

Participants argued that there needs to be more support for community safety services besides policing. One resident pointed out that police can do more harm than good in some situations such as responding to mental health crises, since a police presence may make the situation more tense for those in crisis. However, some questioned whether supporting other services could be accomplished without diverting funds away from police.

Houle noted that a councillor made a similar point at a council meeting on April 6, but argued that if there are not enough resources to fund everything, that a funding freeze is necessary to properly implement the 13 other recommendations made by the task force.

"It's not a menu item — they all work together to hopefully change the system for the better," Houle explained.

Conflicting views

The recommendations council did adopt include an integrated dispatch system that will divert 911 calls to appropriate non-police services, more anti-racism and implicit bias training, and changing the composition of the Edmonton Police Commission to better reflect Edmonton's diverse communities.

Council also voted for administration to further study the funding freeze, and report back in early 2022 — after the municipal election.

However, some participants said the next council should steer clear of this recommendation, because calls to freeze funding or to defund the police may seem “too radical” and scare some Edmontonians.

Houle noted that this is due to Edmontonians having vastly different experiences with police. Some see the police as "knights in shining armour," while others feel less safe in their presence, he said.

Many people agreed with this point, and that the next council should do more to include the lived experiences of those victimized by police in its decision making.

Another resident argued that discussing defunding the police is necessary because it represents a material action that council can take. The resident said the reforms council adopted were “too soft” — that council was claiming it will make a change rather than actually taking steps to follow through.

Accountability

Out of all of the current issues with EPS, the one brought up the most was a lack of accountability. Participants overwhelmingly said they want the next council to look at ways to make both the institution and individual officers more accountable.

One Edmontonian said there should be more disciplinary action against officers who abuse their power. They used the recent example of officers who forced homeless individuals out of Central LRT Station while the city was under an extreme cold warning. EPS issued a public apology, but the officers involved were not reprimanded.

Another resident noted the power of the police union in influencing council decisions and protecting officers from consequences.

The media’s role in holding police accountable was also brought up — a few Edmontonians said they felt outlet’s were not critical enough of officers’ actions and statements issued by the EPS.

Others said that for there to be more accountability, there also needs to be more transparency in the police department. One person noted that police expenditures are not accessible enough for the public, while another brought up the fact that the department shifted radio communications — commonly used by media — to a private, encrypted service from a publicly accessible one in January.

When it comes to funding, some residents said that the yearly automatic increase to the police budget is another way in which the police are not held accountable, since there are no financial consequences if Edmonton police perform poorly.

Houle noted that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, EPS is the only city department that has not been subject to a budget cut.

“I know there are some on council who want to see tangible change, and maybe they weren’t comfortable or thought council wasn’t there yet,” he said regarding the decision to not freeze funding.

“It is time for bold leadership and for change. I think that was a missed opportunity.”

Taproot’s People's Agenda listening sessions will take place weekly until the end of April. The next session on April 15 will be a discussion about homelessness and housing. Those interested in participating can register online.