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Alberta Sheriffs helping EPS may be more about politics than public safety: political scientist

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With Alberta Sheriffs deploying downtown later this month to help improve safety, a political scientist believes the move could be aimed more at voters than criminals.

Lori Williams, a Mount Royal University policy studies professor, says the use of provincial sheriffs to back up the Edmonton Police Service might be political posturing before Albertans head to the polls this May.

Last week, Minister of Public Safety Mike Ellis announced 12 sheriffs would be part of a 15-week pilot program to support police officers working with the Healthy Streets Operations Centre.

That centre has teams of police, peace officers, paramedics and firefighters, as well as community safety liaisons who respond to incidents to provide a holistic safety solution.

According to police Chief Dale McFee, the additional sheriffs would allow the centre to extend its hours of operation from five to seven days a week and to 20 hours of coverage a day.

With increasing public safety being the main part of government messaging, Williams says it may not be the only motivator.

"These days, you have to read just about everything that's happening with the provincial government with a view to the election," she said.

In her view, the province may be looking to generate support for the United Conservative Party in the city and surrounding areas.

"I'm not sure this is just about what's happening in Edmonton," she told CTV News Edmonton. "Given that even though the UCP has good, strong support in rural Alberta, they do not have support for the provincial police force.

"I think this particular move can also be seen as an attempt to generate more support for the provincial police force," Williams added. "Perhaps this a move in the direction of trying to show the people of Alberta that are maybe against it that this is a good idea.

"However, you put some of these activities together with some of the allegations around prosecutorial interference, some people are worried too much direct influence by the provincial government on any kind of policing is not a good idea. That we want more distance, more oversight and a separation between the police and the government."

Some constituents may find an extra uniformed presence reassuring, but Edmonton City Centre MLA David Shepherd views the sheriffs as a "short-term bandage of a solution."

"What we have seen from this government is they've dragged their feet, they've ignored problems here in the heart of our city for years," said Shepherd, who is also the NDP health critic.

"It took them over a year to come up with $5 million they promised to our downtown in the budget last year," he added.

While law enforcement has a role to play in public safety downtown, Shepherd says they are one part of the support spectrum the province should be investing in, including more harm reduction options, crisis diversion, mental health support and affordable housing.

"What we need to see is this government filling in the holes they've dug in terms of social supports for these individuals, stepping up to the table," Shepherd said.

"Policing is a temporary solution, and we need to be doing much, much more."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Jeremy Thompson 

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