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Crime within Edmonton's transit system continues to escalate, despite new efforts by police and their partners

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Reports of violent crime at Edmonton's transit locations rose by nearly 53 per cent between 2021 and 2022, according to new data from Edmonton Police Service.

The majority of violence – 70 per cent – was random, meaning the people involved did not know each other. Crime severity trended 12 per cent higher in transit areas when compared to the city as a whole, too.

About four per cent of all crime reported in Edmonton in 2022 occurred within the city's transit system.

The data is a portion of a broader annual report that will be presented during a police commission meeting on Thursday.

EPS chief Dale McFee said on Wednesday he was releasing it early to draw special attention to a problem that is not unique to Edmonton but which remains particularly concerning to him and EPS' partners.

"It's important we all recognize that transit is a setting where some of these issues are most visible, but transit itself is not the root cause of this problem."

Data from the capital city's police service shows crime in the transit system began to spike in 2020. That year, Edmonton police were called to LRT stations or bus stops nearly 1,790 times. The following year, they were dispatched almost 2,170 times. Then, nearly 2,850 times in 2022.

Mid-spike, EPS started working closer with the City of Edmonton and Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society in 2022 to combine the agencies' resources and skill sets.

On Wednesday, the trio presented a united front, promising to report a different story next year.

"We have all of the things that we need to deal with the issue," McFee told reporters.

"It's not violence – we have a [transit peace officer]. We have a vulnerable person – we have our teams, our joint teams with Cheryl [Whiskeyjack at the Bent Arrow] and her teams to actually connect them to services. We have the police there so when it is something that's violence associated… we have the ability to put them in the justice system."

But that the trend hasn't reversed yet is evidence too little is being done, says the leader of the transit workers union.

HOMELESSNESS DIFFERENT PROBLEM THAN VIOLENCE

The police, city and Bent Arrow all say they are trying to "provide the right assets at the right time."

According to the agencies, this means recognizing that multiple factors are at play.

"Homeless people don't, by nature, punch people, stab people, assault people. And we're trying to make this all about houselessness and homelessness and this isn't. We have a criminal element, violence, we have gang members that are in these facilities," McFee commented.

"Right now, we think that's all the same person. This" – McFee gestured to the city and Bent Arrow officials in the room – "doesn't think they're the same person."

According to Bent Arrow's executive director, the pandemic pushed a number of people who were previously "in the margins" into homelessness and sometimes poor mental health and addiction.

"They're newly homeless, they're out there, and they're looking for a life raft. And we have been having success with those folks in being able to connect them to supports," Whiskeyjack said.

"That's what I appreciate about this partnership: We have a lane and a certain target group we're looking to support. And if it's the disorder side of things, we bring in folks that are part of the partnership that deal with the disorder pieces."

By the fall, Edmonton aims to hire 22 more transit peace officers to fill its roster, which has room for 112. That would be roughly double the number working in 2022.

As well, some budget dollars will be used to create two more community outreach transit (COT) teams for a total of seven.

"We saw really great things happen with two. So we already know the impact that seven will have," Whiskeyjack told media, noting in 2022 the teams made more than 700 referrals to housing, health, addictions and other kinds of support.

As well, hiring a transit safety director to oversee all of the work has "helped immensely," city manager Andre Corbould said.

"We're getting much more sophisticated now in our deployment in terms of watching things like – is the Citadel having a performance on a Saturday night? Well, if it's having a performance, we'll help provide the right assets at the right time for people who are parking in the lot in the library."

UNION DEMANDS MORE

"What we heard from police is despite everyone's best efforts, things are getting worse," Steve Bradshaw, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 569, said after the news conference.

But he acknowledged the problem needs attention and funding from more than EPS.

He described transit operators finding "ridearounds" – or riders without a destination – unconscious and spoke of their concerns about illicit drugs being used in their vehicle.

"We're experiencing a mental health crisis – read: health-care crisis – and what we're not getting is provincial government stepping forward to fulfil its mandate to provide health care to those people in mental health crisis."

First, the union wants EPS to bring back transit beat officers, which the police service got rid of in 2020.

It also wants the higher levels of government to take action on the housing and addictions crises, give transit peace officers more authority to enforce the Mental Health Act, and create a commission composed of EPS, city, ATU and provincial government members.

"It's a big, big problem. It's going to take big orders of government to solve it. And it's going to take time. And in the meantime, we need to attack the front end of it," Bradshaw said.

"We need to make [transit workers] safe and we need to make the homeless people safe, as well. The criminal element that follows the homeless onto the system needs to be held to task. On that, I certainly agree with Chief McFee."

All types of crime at transit locations increased. After violent crime, disorder and "non-violent" calls were next to grow the most, each by 37 per cent.

Of the transit stations, the Eaux Claires centre saw the highest increase in dispatch service at 133 per cent over 2021. Officers were dispatched to Churchill 84 per cent more in 2022, to Clareview 58 per cent more, and to Belvedere 46 per cent more.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's David Ewasuk 

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