Attendance low as police commission seeks input on budget

The Edmonton Police Commission has engaged Pe Metawe Consulting to host roundtable discussions with Edmontonians to inform its decisions on the police budget over the next four years. The second public consultation is scheduled for this weekend, after no one showed up to the first event at the end of March.

"We obviously don't have a lot of insight into why, but it could be a combination of a large dump of snow, reticence, and poor communication from us on the type of environment and confidentiality, and a mistrust of the culture around Edmonton police currently," said Pe Metawe team guide David Plamondon.

Pe Metawe, an Indigenous-owned consultancy that also operates a tabletop game store, was hired to lead 12 community engagement sessions at a cost of $50,000 (that budget also includes a public survey from Leger). It will host an additional session at the beginning of May as a replacement for the session that no one attended in March.

The consulting organization has 12 questions to guide the in-person engagements, which marks the police commission's first formal public consultation on a police budget. In a focus-group format, participants are asked about how safe Edmonton is overall, what they think about the police budget, and how non-police services like mental health support should be funded, among other questions. The responses will be compiled in a report to guide the commission's discussions ahead of city council's deliberations on the next budget cycle later this year, including a possible review of the police service funding formula.

The Community Safety and Well-Being Task Force, which was created in the wake of public hearings into racism and policing, also provided in-depth recommendations on police funding as part of its Safer For All report that was released in March 2021.

Those recommendations included a call to bring the police budget in line with comparable cities and tie a portion of it to specific performance. The city council at that time did not adopt that recommendation, but in December 2021, the newly elected council voted to divert some of the funds the police would have received under the funding formula and put it towards social programs instead. As a result, the 2022 police budget increased by $1 million instead of $11.9 million in an annual budget of almost $400 million.

Rob Houle, a member of the task force, said he isn't sure if the engagement sessions are meant to "devalue or undermine the work of the task force" but that he doesn't expect anything substantial to come out of the events.

"This kind of process and this reiteration of the whole process seems to be a reaffirmation that even though there were promises to change the way things are being done, there isn't really any substance to those promises," said Houle. "What the task force recommended and continues to recommend are real tangible changes to the way policing is done in Edmonton."

Houle also said the city appears to be entering another budget cycle where police will emphasize "how unsafe" Edmonton is to back up their call for more funding.

"But in reality, they've been doing the same job with marginally less money given ... and crime has been either going down or been steady," Houle said.

These are three of the 12 questions Pe Metawe has prepared for participants who attend the police commission's roundtable discussions about the police budget.

When asked why more consultations were needed, Edmonton Police Commission executive director Matthew Barker told Taproot that independent public engagement and research experts can help the commission gather input from Edmontonians with a variety of backgrounds.

"In a time where public safety, policing, and community expectations related to policing are of critical importance, the EPC is dedicated to hearing from Edmontonians on how best to make our city safe for everyone," Barker said. "This can call for a more precise approach to reaching out to Edmontonians."

The police commission itself has faced criticism for defending police operations instead of asking hard questions on behalf of the public.

The commission recognizes that policing must change and is working towards a more compassionate approach, Barker said. Preliminary results indicate that crime rates are decreasing more in Edmonton than in other parts of Alberta, and "police culture is becoming more focused on community safety, wellbeing, and inclusivity," he added. "We know there's more work to do, and public input will help inform this."

Aside from concerns about the process itself, Houle also pointed out that although he was glad to see the commission engaging with an Indigenous-owned organization, he isn't sure if Pe Metawe was the right one for the job. "I question whether or not they have the skills and abilities to reach the appropriate people that are needed to provide the appropriate input on a project like this," Houle said.

Plamondon said Pe Metawe doesn't have police-specific consultation experience, but he has personally worked alongside EPS and the RCMP through community engagement and recruitment. He added that the organization saw the roundtable discussions as an opportunity to lead the conversation on how to address "over-targeting BIPOC people."

Irfan Chaudhry, a human rights expert at MacEwan University, was on the task force with Houle and is also a member of the police commission (though he did not speak to Taproot in that capacity). Like Plamondon, he believes the roundtable discussions are an opportunity for further change.

"(The task force) met weekly for three hours over the span of a number of months, but outside of the folks on the committee, there wasn't really a chance for broader consultation," he explained.

Chaudhry added that task force members were Edmontonians with lived experience from various backgrounds and perspectives: "That fuelled most of the recommendations and the reports that the task force put forward ... because it was so focused specifically on the members themselves in terms of being able to take some of that knowledge and experience, I think that's where having more of a broader opportunity is always helpful for engagement."

Chaudhry is hoping the engagement sessions will provide further weight to some of the task force's recommendations, and he said he doesn't want the commission to lose sight of the need to tackle systemic challenges associated with policing.

Those who can't attend the public session on April 9 will have another chance on April 23. Four of the 12 events are open to the public, including the make-up session, and the remaining nine are focused on engaging various segments of Edmontonians, including business associations, Indigenous groups, religious groups, LGBTQ+ individuals, and more.

Plamondon said the events are primarily being advertised through social media through boosted posts on Facebook and on the commission's channels. Pe Metawe is also relying on word-of-mouth, especially by the organizations that represent the communities joining the targeted sessions.

Five of the community-specific events have already happened, with 22 people attending in total.