Edmonton’s new chief of police says he is making it a priority to change the way the force approaches social issues like drug addiction and mental illness, which he called the city’s biggest drivers of crime.

According to Chief Dale McFee, Edmonton officers lay three times as many charges as Calgary officers do in a year for violations of conditions—like failure to keep the peace and attend court, or possessing or using drugs.

“The fact that we breach probably 12,490 times and the next, City of Calgary, at 3,900 tells us that social issues are our biggest driver of crime in this city,” McFee told media on Monday in an interview to mark his first 90 days on the job.

McFee said the statistics offer an opportunity for the force to examine how it deals with individuals at the first instance of police contact. Then, he suggested, the force could help connect offenders to other resources through community partnerships in a system like Saskatchewan’s hub model for community safety.

“We’re in this together. There’s one taxpayer,” he said.

“We need to expect that all of our agencies are going to get together to do this.  And I think that’s one thing police can lead, but we can’t own it because we can’t fix social issues. But we sure can play a role in helping get the right response to them.”

McFee’s predecessor, Rod Knecht, was a long-time advocate of resource hubs, or wellness centres.

While the new chief expressed continued support for the idea, he couldn’t say what kind of model would best serve Edmonton.

“But that wellness—where you have access to housing, access to mental health and addictions treatment, access to the things that disproportionately drive for calls for service—we need to have that,” McFee told reporters.

“Does it need to be in one location? Should it be in five locations? I think we need to figure out what that looks like in Edmonton quickly.”

Despite Knecht’s advocacy, the former chief made little progress on an Edmonton wellness centre during his service.

McFee said numbers are on the force’s side.

“We’ve now accumulated the data to show you have to do it and if you don’t do it, this is what actually happens.”

“The police don’t condone hate… That goes without saying.”

McFee also addressed the growth of extremism in Alberta, reiterating the Edmonton Police Service stands strongly in opposition to hate: “That goes without saying.”

However, he noted individuals in fringe groups often tread carefully.

“The individuals that partake in that tend to know where those lines are. They know where their right to freedom of speech is, and the right where they’re actually crossing the line, and we have to be very careful to making sure we respect that.”

The chief didn’t name any movement as a particular concern, commenting, “I think they all concern, if they’re expressing hate.”

Cannabis legalization going ‘fairly well’

Of the first six months of cannabis legalization, McFee said enforcement was going “fairly well,” but that it was hard to estimate given market shortages.

“Supply is really behind, like it’s 20, 30 per cent of supply. I don’t think we’re seeing a full impact,” McFee said, adding the online sale of edibles are another factor.

“Those are things we need to be cognisant of.”

The chief said his biggest related concern was impaired driving, of which he has noticed an increase.

However, he said the force was in an “okay” position resource-wise, after city council rejected some of the force’s funding requests in its latest budget.

Use-of-force investigations a learning experience: Chief

McFee also commented on an apparent increase in use of force by officers, resulting in investigations by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT).

The chief pointed, in part, to an rise in risky behaviour on the street.

“The use of fire arms and guns outside of policing on the street has been increasing, and so generally, one response to the other, right?”

McFee described ASIRT investigations as a learning opportunity.

“(We) need to make sure… that we can look at our own selves internally and say, is there something we should have done different? Are we accountable for what we did? And if so, how are we going to do things differently?”

Naming homicide victims

The chief said new policy was expected in June regarding how the EPS identifies homicide victims.

McFee said June would bring clarity to the rules, and perhaps operational changes.

With files from Nicole Weisberg