Bylaw amendment latest in flurry of actions to address transit safety

· The Pulse

An amendment giving bylaw and peace officers more authority to remove people from the transit system for loitering or using drugs is the latest action in a series of efforts aimed at curtailing crime and perceived threats to safety downtown through law enforcement.

The city has also funded several outreach programs over the past two years to help people who are struggling with houselessness, mental illness, and drug abuse get resources and connections to further care. These programs join the patchwork of city services, charities, and volunteer-run organizations in Edmonton dedicated to dealing with these crises.

The city calls this a "multilayered approach", but it's all inadequate to the task at hand, suggested Robert Miller of the Harm Reduction Society (HARES), a volunteer-run mutual aid organization that works to meet the needs of downtown community members who are missed by the city's programs.

"There are a lot of finer points to what lacks in the city response, but the biggest is simply that these services are over capacity and under-resourced," he said of the lack of adequate housing supports that creates a need for street-level outreach. "Outreach teams help to keep people alive, but they are ultimately still left out in the cold by policy failures at every level of government."

These responses will only be effective to a certain extent until the underlying issues are adequately addressed, Miller said.

"We live in a society where housing is a commodity, which must be denied to some in order to create value for others; our society is built on Indigenous genocide, and refuses to reconcile with this fact, let alone take steps to heal that damage; we live in a society where the moral value of a human being is largely decided by the colour of their skin and their capacity to produce value, and those deemed undesirable or unprofitable are made illegal."

On the eve of the June 9 deadline set by Justice Minister Tyler Shandro to see Edmonton's public safety plan for downtown and in the transit system, city council voted to amend the bylaw governing the conduct of transit passengers, prohibiting people from remaining on transit property for any reason other than using transit and banning the visible use of drugs.

Councillors who opposed the amendment worried that the rule will be applied inequitably, with racialized and Indigenous people bearing the brunt of enforcement. This was why council removed the loitering provision in the bylaw last summer, said Coun. Aaron Paquette of Ward Dene.

"It simply did not work and it was not equitable," he said. "It was obviously very heavily weighted toward visible minorities as the enforcement target."

But the majority of councillors agreed with city manager Andre Corbould that the amendments were needed to help transit riders feel safe.

A transit peace officer with the words "Community Outreach" on his back, beside a worker from Bent Arrow with an Edmonton Transit bus in the background

The Community Outreach Transit Team (COTT) pairs transit peace officers with social workers from the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society. (Transforming Edmonton)

The city maintains that it is doing what it can to both make transit riders feel safe and take care of the needs of people who have nowhere else to go. "Transit Peace Officers will engage, educate and encourage people to abide by community standards; however, enforcement is sometimes necessary to keep our transit network safe," said David Jones, branch manager for community standards and neighbourhoods, in a news release following the passage of the amendment. "In coordination with the Edmonton Police Service and Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society, our peace officers have and continue to play a critical role in preventing crime, and responding to concerns and people in distress who need support."

Given the flurry of announcements recently about measures to both prevent crime and respond to people in distress, let's take a look at the various groups who are patrolling downtown:

Community Outreach Transit Team (COTT)

COTT is a partnership between the city and the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society. Social support workers are paired with transit officers to patrol transit properties and connect people in need of housing, mental health care, and addiction supports with the appropriate resources.

The two-year pilot program was launched in September 2021. Initially operating with a budget of $1.4 million and two teams, with plans for an additional two the following year, the city approved a $3.9 million transit safety plan in February that included expanding the COTT program to seven teams.

The program was created as a response to an increase in calls for service to the transit control centre, up 487% between 2018 and 2020, as well as safety concerns on public transit.

The program aims to provide help in a way that people in need are comfortable asking for, and to overcome the "uniform barrier" that exists between downtown community members and other police- or peace officer-led patrols, says Bent Arrow.

Transit Community Action Teams (TCAT)

These are transit officer foot patrols that use "a high-visibility and high-engagement deployment model aimed to reduce and prevent crime and disorder in assigned hot spots." Based on a 2019 pilot program that saw a 27% decrease in violent crime in transit locations with increased police and peace officer patrols, TCAT patrols are made up of 11 officers in teams working in shifts between 7am and 1am.

As part of the city's transit safety strategy, 35% of transit officers will be dedicated to foot patrols and COTT programs by July of this year, according to a report presented to council on May 24.

Overdose Prevention and Response Teams (OPRTs)

This is the newest addition to the teams patrolling downtown. The joint program from the city, the Downtown Business Association, and Boyle Street Community Services received $195,000 from the city's Downtown Vibrancy Strategy to run the pilot from May to September 2022.

Each OPRT consists of an outreach worker paired with a nurse to respond to drug poisonings in the downtown pedway system and surrounding area. The teams also train local businesses on how to respond to drug poisonings, provide basic medical care, and connect downtown community members to other services.

"This new program puts critical resources on the ground to reduce the tragic loss of life due to drug poisoning in Edmonton. It also takes a community-based approach that helps to strengthen the resiliency of our city's core as it regains its footing in the aftermath of the pandemic," said Jordan Reiniger, executive director of Boyle Street, said in a news release.

Human-centred Engagement and Liaison Partnership (HELP) Unit

HELP is an Edmonton Police Service initiative that directs vulnerable people to resources and organizations better suited to deal with their issues than police.

HELP is a partnership with Boyle Street Community Services, The Mustard Seed, the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, Native Counselling Services of Alberta, Bent Arrow, and the George Spady Society. The program began in January 2021.

Charitable, volunteer, and mutual aid organizations

  • The Hope Mission is a Christian not-for-profit that runs a 24/7 "rescue van." In partnership with the Emergency Response Department and police, the van can be summoned by calling 211; it will transport intoxicated people to shelters. The mission also offers food and clothing.
  • The Beaver Hills House Bear Clan is an Indigenous-led group that provides necessities to people living downtown, with an emphasis on traditional food and cultural supports, and has a mission to foster a sense of safety and community solidarity. The Bear Clan patrol began in Winnipeg in 2015 and now operates in a number of Canadian cities. Beaver Hills House Bear Clan started serving the community in November 2020. The Bear Clan patrols are volunteer-run, including many members who have directly experienced houselessness, and are donation-supported.
  • Harm Reduction Society (HARES) is a mutual aid collective that provides food, clothing, toiletries, camping supplies, and harm reduction supplies. HARES began as Treaty 6 Outreach in 2020 in response to the closure of city, volunteer, and charity services for the unhoused in Edmonton. Unlike most of the teams and programs on this list, HARES is "strictly anti-cop," and doesn't involve police in any of its activities. "Interacting with services can often be an unpleasant and dehumanizing experience, and we aim to minimize that as much as possible," Miller said.