A recommendation to freeze the Edmonton Police Service's $450-million budget has the support of 26 of the candidates seeking election on Oct. 18, including four mayoral candidates, according to a Taproot Survey question.
But the incumbents seeking re-election are either in favour of increasing the police budget according to the current funding formula, or they chose not to answer.
Edmontonians who participated in Taproot's People's Agenda project were clear that examining police funding was important to them, particularly in light of the public hearings into racism and policing that led to the creation of the Community Safety and Well-Being Task Force.
The task force identified a number of longstanding problems that it attributed to systemic racism and discrimination, and it made 14 recommendations to deal with them. Thirteen were unanimously approved by council earlier this year.
But the 14th recommendation — that funding be brought in line with comparable cities and a portion tied to specific performance, with a further suggestion to reinvest the savings into social services and "other community safety ecosystem needs" — was sidelined by a request for further data from city administration. Mayor Don Iveson was reluctant to accept that recommendation, saying "this council cannot make financial decisions for the next council."
Administration is expected to report back in the first quarter of 2022.
Ten candidates skipped the question or said they don't have a position, including incumbents Bev Esslinger, Andrew Knack, Sarah Hamilton, and Aaron Paquette, and mayoral candidate Cheryll Watson. No other question on the survey had that many non-answers.
Human rights expert Irfan Chaudhry, who was a member of the task force, said those elected will need to be able to discuss issues related to policing in depth at council, so they should be willing to now.
"If (council candidates) aren't willing to engage in the debate even before they're at that seat, how fruitful are those discussions going to be when they're actually in a position of power?" Chaudhry asked.
Freezing the police budget appealed to the plurality of the 67 candidates who submitted their responses to the Taproot Survey. Another 13 went further, saying that they support decreasing the police budget somewhat. No one said they want to defund the police altogether.
Taproot has not received finalized answers from 18 of the 85 candidates, including mayoral contender Mike Nickel. He has said he wants to increase police presence in the city's core, and he voted against a motion to study the funding freeze in April.
The Edmonton Police Commission, on which Hamilton and Cartmell sit, announced on Oct. 5 that it extended Chief Dale McFee's contract to 2026, which is longer than the term of the council that will be elected on Oct. 18. The commission said McFee needs more time to enact his Vision 2020, noting that "2020 and 2021 have been challenging years with demands on resources from the pandemic and social movements around police reform and calls for defunding that have placed time constraints on the ability to roll out each recommendation effectively."
The Taproot Survey also asked candidates to choose a statement that best captures their beliefs about racism and the Edmonton Police Service. Thirty candidates chose "The EPS is not racist on the whole, but there are some racist members," while 28 said "Systemic racism is apparent throughout the EPS." Only two candidates said there is no racism within the service, while three said they didn't have a position and four skipped the question.
'Awareness and education'
Chaudhry wants to see the next council embody a baseline level of "polite pressure" in discussions about policing, funding, and racial discrimination. And if councillors don't have the background to do that, they should be offered training to understand the issues at hand.
"Provide opportunities for them to have awareness and education sessions to be informed so that they can ask the right questions," said Chaudhry, pointing to his own experience on the task force as an example.
"When we were provided information that filled in some of our gaps, that helped us with better decision-making. I think building in some of those mechanisms so everyone is informed will be critical."