I want to start with an apology. I know I have contributed to systemic racism in our city and I haven’t done enough, or possibly anything, to end systemic racism. For example, I can recall times where I have knocked on doors and spoken with people who start saying racist things about black, indigenous, and people of colour in our city. Instead of challenging it, I remained silent. That was unacceptable and that is one example of what is meant when talking about systemic racism.
While I do not believe I am a racist person, I have allowed racist behaviour to go unchallenged. That’s what is meant when people talk about being anti-racist. It’s not enough for us to not be racist, we each have to work to be anti-racist to help fix the systemic issues that exist. I haven’t been anti-racist and that is why I wanted to start with an apology. With that context, I’d like to take some time to address what has been happening over the last few weeks including the campaign to invest in community and divest from policing.
It’s been impossible for me to watch the entire video of George Floyd’s murder without breaking down. I know I’m not the only one. Since then, I’ve watched what has been happening in the US and across the world. The status quo has to change. It should have changed a long time ago but as noted above, people like myself have not taken the necessary steps to fix the problem.
Within the past week, I’ve received more messages about this topic than I ever have received about any other topic in my almost seven years serving on council. While there have been many issues that have generated a lot of public feedback, I’ve never seen anything like this before and I want to take some time to cover the requests that were made in the letter.
The first three parts relate to funding of EPS and they are as follows:
- To never vote to increase the EPS budget.
- To repeal the $75 million dollar budget increase promised to EPS in 2019.
- To directly reinvest that $75 million in affordable housing, mental health programming, making public transit free and to community-led organizations (a short list is included below).
Before I cover these requests, I want to share the motion that was made yesterday. It’s a long motion but the part that relates to the budget can be found in 1.e.
“1. That Administration:
- Work with the commission to bring forward analysis on how many calls for service are driven by mental health, addictions, homelessness or other social and public health factors, and analysis for how many calls could be better responded to by partners through the scale up of existing programs like REACH’s 24/7 Crisis Diversion program, or new programs, with service packages for such programs for consideration as part of the Fall Supplemental Operating Budget Adjustments;
- Approach the City of Calgary and other Cities with Police Services in Alberta to jointly analyse the ‘cracks in the system’ in Alberta’s cities that drive higher crime, disorder, and demand for service for reactive community services including policing to inform the above;
- Engage external subject matter experts to bring a report summarizing trends and change models generally described under “divest” and “defund” including the recently approved Minneapolis decisions, any Canadian contextual examples, and the various demonstrated and proposed change models, including reference to the change model articulated in the End Poverty Edmonton Roadmap and the Plan to End Homelessness;
- That a) b) and c) come back to Committee in September;
- Informed by the above, that budget amendments for Council’s consideration for Fall Supplemental Operating Budget Adjustments to freeze the 2021 police budget at 2020 levels, and that the Edmonton Police Service Funding Formula policy C604 be suspended pending review and reframing as a Edmonton Community Safety Funding Policy informed by the analysis directed above;
- Report urgently on options to better hold Transit Peace Officers accountable for excessive use of force, including an arm’s length oversight mechanism, and advice on further submissions to the Alberta’s Solicitor General on the Police Act.
2. That the Mayor write to the Solicitor General regarding the pending expedited Police Act review:
- Advocating that an independent mechanism like ASIRT be given mandate for handling all public complaints about police conduct;
- That similar mechanisms for Peace Officer oversight and accountability be strengthened in provincial legislation; and
- Clarity of provincial law and policy with respect to Carding and Street Check policy and any findings and implementation plans arising from the Province’s recent review that can be shared.
3. That the Mayor write to the Edmonton Police Commission asking for the following:
- To provide advice to Council’s on EPC’s perspective on opportunities to strengthen the public complaints about police conduct, particularly around excessive force complaints, as part of the Police Act review;
- To invite participation in the work outlined in part 1, including proposals prior to budget for “smart on community safety and wellbeing” changes to policy, funding, programs and partnerships;
- To hold a public hearing and public inquiry on the EPS street check policies based on community concerns about informal Carding;
- To provide information to Council on Dash and Body camera implementation pathways given Federal announcements, including costs and timelines.”
Since the motion will not be voted on until a Public Hearing is held in the next week or so, there could still be revisions or additions to the motion.
For those who read my pre-budget blog post back in late 2018, you will see that I did put forward a motion that would have resulted in an approximately $35 million increase in EPS budget from 2019-2022 instead of the originally requested $87 million increase. Normally, I would suggest that people who want to learn more, should visit the link above but I want to include an excerpt from that blog here as I think it’s a critical part of our discussion today.
“The largest impact listed in this report would be adjusting the proposed increase to the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) budget. On Tuesday night I was reviewing the budgets of the Calgary Police Service as they face similar challenges to the City of Edmonton. What jumped out at me was that if we were to approve the recommended budget for 2019-2022, the budget for EPS would be $424 million in 2022 which would put us $3 million more than Calgary’s Police budget in 2022. That would mean that even though our population is approximately 30% less, we would have a higher budget by 2022.
Every city is unique and so I appreciate that it’s not as simple as saying that our policing budget should be 30% less than Calgary’s policing budget but it is fair to question if we need to reflect on how that money would be used, especially when a new police chief will be starting early next year and Chief McFee has received many accolades for introducing new ways of policing that have had positive results.
For the reasons above and many others, I think the recommended changes for police in the link below along with some other changes not listed should be adopted and will be putting forward a motion to make those changes. What does that mean? First and most importantly, the Edmonton Police Service would still see a budget increase each of the next four years. I’m not suggesting we cut or even freeze their budget – the City of Calgary proposed a freeze for their policing budget in both 2019 and 2020. What I’m suggesting is that we reduce how much the budget will increase. This would still provide our police service with an additional $34 million over the next four years and Council always has the ability to make adjustments each year. I would also propose that this can be revisited next year after Chief McFee has settled into his new position and had the opportunity to review how we are providing policing services in our city.
For reference, Calgary’s Police Service will see a 4.9% increase total over the next 4 years. From approximately $401 million to $421 million. Taking into account the savings identified in the report below, EPS would see an approximately 10% increase over the same 4 years from $337 million to $371 million. That would mean that Edmonton’s policing budget would be about 12% less than Calgary’s policing budget with a population that is around 30% less.
In the end, my goal is to make sure we can clearly understand the impact of any money we spend. This week we had a number of our other agencies, boards, and commissions (ex: Edmonton Public Library) present to Council with almost every one of them presenting a budget with no increase over the next four years. Recognizing that our emergency services (Police and Fire Rescue) are critical, I don’t believe it’s fair to propose no additional resources and that view is shared in both the City budget survey as well as my budget survey. By reducing the size of the increase, we would be saving approximately $54 million over the next four years.”
With that context in place, I support what is listed in 1.e. because I believe that there are programs and services run by other organizations that would allow our police officers to be more focused on preventing crime. In this week’s council meeting we heard Chief McFee state that approximately 30% of the calls they respond to are social work related. While I know our police officers are highly trained, the skills required to be a social worker are not the same as the skills required to be a police officer. It’s not fair to ask our police officers to also serve as social workers. This is already an incredibly stressful job that so very few people choose to do and asking them to prevent and stop crime and be social workers is not reasonable.
I should also note that I struggle with the notion of taking back previously approved funding without a clear plan of what program and services we will be supporting. I don’t want to see our officers also be social workers but I don’t want to leave them short-staffed to deal with actual crime issues they were hired to deal with. Similar to the provincial health care budget, we know that it’s easy to fall into a trap and primarily or exclusively fund the reactive part of the equation.
When it comes to community safety, the city hasn’t done a good enough job of spending the limited financial resources on various social supports. It’s true that some of this would be provincial jurisdiction but as we have seen with affordable housing, which also has a direct impact on policing, there seems to be little appetite to start bending the cost curve.
If we don’t start doing things differently, we know what the future holds because we’ve been doing the same thing for decades. 10 years ago, the net operating requirement (revenue less expenses) for EPS was $236 million. This year the net operating requirement was $373 million. That level of growth is financially unsustainable and it accounts for a large percentage of our overall city budget. That level of growth also means that we have little to invest in other community programs.
There are too many times that I recall different community organizations approaching city council asking for $50,000 – $100,000 to run a program that will serve a large number of people in need. There are also too many times that I recall not being able to fund those requests because we’ve been trying to keep tax increases to a minimum, particularly since 2017. If you’ve read my yearly budget blog posts you know that increases to the policing budget regularly make up the largest portion of the increase. In 2016, I wrote this in one of my budget blog posts:
“The cost of poverty to our police service is large as they spend over 25% of their time responding to social disorder calls so by working to end poverty in a generation, we will actually save our city money in the long-term through reduced calls.”
There hasn’t been a fundamental shift in that time so unsurprisingly, the percentage of time that EPS now spends responding to social works calls is 30%. We cannot keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So it is time to complete a thorough review of the budget and determine how it can be used more effectively to produce the results we actually want. That doesn’t mean reducing their budget tomorrow, but it does mean not increasing the budget in 2021 and completing the analysis in point 1 of the motion listed above to inform the other necessary changes we need to make so that our police officers can focus on crime and they can be supported by a strong coalition of organizations that will provide the necessary social supports to those in need.
Some of the other requests that were included in the correspondence I’ve been receiving deal with governance and the process for investigations. I believe it’s important to review those areas so that the entire public can have confidence in the system and we also can ensure that our police officers feel safe in reporting any misconduct they witness. The motion listed above should address those concerns.
The City of Edmonton as an organization has spent a lot of time over the last 4 years transforming the culture based on critical feedback we had received from city staff in employee engagement surveys. While I believe it is important to review this area so that the entire public can have confidence in the system, and our police officers feel safe in reporting any misconduct they witness. Chief McFee has also been working on the culture within EPS since he started a little over a year ago. We need to do what we can to support this work in order to create an environment that works for both the public and officers.
The motion references the Police Act which is an important part of any transformation because it is the governing document that municipalities in Alberta are required to follow. For example, the Police Act requires that we have a Police Commission that will submit the budget requests and provide oversight of the work that EPS does. The provincial government has announced that they are going to expedite the modernization of the Police Act since there hasn’t been a full review since 1988.
One change that I would recommend we explore is increasing the number of public members on the Edmonton Police Commission. There is a maximum of 11 and considering the workload, I’m not sure that is enough support. Increasing the membership to 13 or 15 would also allow us to have greater representation that reflects the full diversity of our city.
The issue of systemic racism is not only going to be solved by talking about how police services operate. I believe now is the right time to have this conversation for the reasons listed above.. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’ve contributed to systemic racism. I need to work on this, the City of Edmonton as an organization needs to work on this. We need to work on this as a community because there are many of our neighbours, friends, and family members who have been negatively impacted by this system. I encourage you not to look at this conversation as a threat, but as an opportunity to build a more inclusive community where everyone feels safe and supported.
Please take some time to share your thoughts in the comments. I know this is a sensitive topic but I encourage you to share your thoughts in a respectful way. We will also be holding a Public Hearing from June 15th – June 17th. If you are interested, you can register to speak and you will have 5 minutes at the Public Hearing to share your perspective on the motion above with all of council.