New strategy aims to make Edmonton safer as community calls for more EPS officers

Community members and councillors weighed in on a newly proposed safety and well-being plan crafted by administration to make Edmonton the safest city in Canada by the end of the decade.

The Community Safety and Well-Being Strategy is a city-wide approach that administration believes will better connect and coordinate law enforcement, emergency services, social agencies, and nonprofits that respond to incidents or provide aid.

"This roadmap, if we get it right, will allow our city to be stronger and more stable," said Andre Corbould, Edmonton city manager.

"It can give all Edmontonians a chance to improve their quality of life, it improves livability and cohesion, enhances economic competitiveness and productivity, and will build a more resilient Edmonton," Corbould added. "At its core, the strategy envisions that each person in Edmonton feels like they belong."

Some of the 14 recommendations in the plan include professionalizing policing in Edmonton by creating a new regulatory college for police and peace officers, pivoting to an integrated 911 emergency call evaluation and dispatch model, and expanding the use of crisis diversion and alternative policing teams.

The plan also recommends investing in "urgently" needed priorities for community safety, bringing EPS funding in line with comparable cities while tying a portion of funding to specific performance objectives, and bringing more transparency to complaint processes.

Each of the recommendations addresses seven pillars, including anti-racism, reconciliation, crime prevention and crisis intervention, promoting safe and inclusive spaces, and pathways in and out of poverty.

If approved, the framework will have an overall dashboard that monitors the progress the city is making toward each goal and create an aggregate "community safety and well-being score" for the city.

"Using this dashboard, we are prepared to publicly report how we are moving the needle on this file and to create a shared understanding of our progress," Corbould said.

The plan stems from public hearings held at city hall in June 2020, the Safer for All report tabled last year, and combines recommendations from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) Plan, the city's anti-racism and problem properties strategies.

Within the strategy, city administration is asking council to consider investing more than $8.4 million to fund 10 different initiatives that range from microgrants for social agencies and community partners to initiating work to design a future Indigenous-led shelter building.

"These business cases will help to bring the strategy to life and implement action on the ground," Corbould said.

Council's community and public services committee will continue to discuss the strategy on Tuesday and Wednesday. If approved by the committee, it will go before city council in the coming weeks.

'PROPER SUPPORT' TO EPS NEEDED

Puneeta McBryan, Downtown Business Association executive director, told committee members she "fully" supports the strategy but says there needs to be more visible law enforcement officers in the city for the strategy to work.

"(That helps) deter harmful behaviour and holds individuals accountable for harmful and criminal behaviour," McBryan said, adding there also needs to be more spaces for individuals in crisis, particularly for drug users.

"Without those two things being addressed, frankly yesterday, we're in a very challenging situation in our core business districts," she said.

McBryan said downtown businesses see a "really high volume" of serious incidents, including verbal and physical abuse, thefts, and vandalism.

"Downtown and our community is feeling like a political football," she added. "It's really exhausting, and I don't personally know the answer, but I know what we need."

Haruun Ali, a University of Alberta student and community advocate, said the city needs to find inclusive ways to deal with security concerns.

"No one should feel unsafe in the downtown core, but at the same time too, we need to recognize that some members of the community have had harmful interactions with EPS, and they don't feel safe interacting with them," Ali said.

Joseph Gebran, a local entrepreneur who owns and operates four McDonald's restaurants throughout the city, agreed with McBryan, saying it is a "wonderful" strategy, but "proper support" to the Edmonton Police Service is needed.

"Throughout my lifetime of experience in my home of Edmonton, I have never known it to be a place where safety has become an overriding concern, that is until I began doing business in some of these areas, especially in the Kingsway areas," Gebran said.

"I know that the city, city council, (and) all of us are frustrated and would like to find a better way forward but let's remember, between the short term and the medium term there's the immediate now," he added.

At Gebran's Kingsway location, he told councillors that in the first three months of 2022, the fast food restaurant placed more than 360 calls for "urgent support" to EPS.

"This is far too many," he said. "It's not safe. These are Edmontonians, whether they be my customers or my staff, that are being threatened by what is happening in the neighbourhood."

He asked council to consider the downstream effects its decisions have on Edmonton businesses, citing the closures of washrooms at LRT stations and transit centres.

"I know keeping them safe and clean comes at a cost, but when they were unilaterally closed the problem was not solved," Gebran said. "It was instead immediately displaced upon unsuspecting surrounding businesses, many of which are even less equipped to deal with these issues than is the city. All the vandalism, danger, and safety issues literally moved to nearby businesses."

"People say we don't need the police, we don't need beat cops," said Stacy Zaidi, a Remedy Cafe co-owner and Downtown Recovery Coalition member.

"I need them," Zaidi said. "All the businesses downtown need them. We need that presence." 

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Jeremy Thompson