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If EPS, sheriffs try a hard crackdown on inner-city Edmonton it could make things worse: criminologist

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A former Edmonton Police Service officer believes bringing Alberta Sheriffs into downtown Edmonton is a risky plan that has the potential to backfire if not done properly.

Dan Jones wore an EPS badge for 25 years, including assignments on the gang unit and as a homicide detective. He now has a masters in criminology, is pursuing a PhD and teaches at Norquest College.

He spoke to CTV News Edmonton Thursday about a plan unveiled the day before to have 12 Alberta Sheriffs assist EPS officers with crime and disorder downtown during a 15-week pilot project starting later this month.

"I think the intention is good. I think the necessity to be very, very prescriptive in how it's actually being done might be a piece that's missing," Jones said.

"There's a potential that they're actually creating harm rather than reducing harm. By that, I mean: zero-tolerance policing, also known as broken-windows policing, when you flood an area, blitz policing, those things don't actually reduce crime and harm. The evidence is clear in the research."

The move to bring sheriffs in is part of the Edmonton Public Safety and Community Response Task Force, which was assembled in December and includes provincial ministers and the city's police chief.

"In downtown Edmonton, the issues are clear: crime, homelessness, addictions, mental health are problems seen on every corner. As a result, businesses are leaving, and people are leaving," Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis said Wednesday, adding this is just the first step.

"We are going to fix this…We are going to restore confidence."

The addition of sheriffs will increase patrols to seven days a week and 20 hours a day.

"Despite their best efforts our EPS officers and our current resources could only be in so many places at one time," EPS Chief Dale McFee said at the sheriff announcement.

Jones applauded the inter-agency approach to dealing with what he considers legitimate safety concerns felt by downtown residents, workers and transit riders, but said a poorly-managed crackdown in the inner-city could delegitimize police in the long term.

"If you're getting a ticket for riding on the sidewalk in Chinatown and you're not getting a ticket for riding on the sidewalk in Terwillegar Towne, you're now showing a differential level of policing," Jones explained.

"And that harms police legitimacy with the individuals in those inner-city areas."

He strongly suggests EPS officers and sheriffs use the method of "hot-spot policing" instead, citing studies he said found that officers simply being visible for 15 minutes a day can reduce crime in that space by 30 to 80 per cent.

"Just go, be in a place for 15 minutes. Be aware, be happy, say hello, be aware, be noticeable. No action imperative. [Officers] don’t need to get into people’s pockets, don’t need to arrest people on warrants, don’t need to write tickets," Jones said.

"I was a beat officer, I was told to write the tickets, I was told to do all these things. And in the end of it realizing [that] just being present was what often deterred crime."

The sheriffs will augment EPS officers recently deployed as part of the Healthy Streets Operations Centre, which is tasked with tackling disorder in the Chinatown and Alberta Avenue areas.

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.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi welcomed the provincial reinforcements but said more has to be done to address the root causes of crime and disorder

"The disorder that we are seeing in our streets are a direct result of homelessness, addiction and mental health crisis that we are facing in our communities and I welcome the province's intervention in this," Sohi told reporters on Monday.

"These are provincial responsibilities and they haven't really stepped up to provide necessary support to struggling Edmontonians and the impact is more disorder."

Typically, sheriffs are focused on traffic safety enforcement on provincial highways, commercial vehicle inspections, prisoner escorts and security at the legislature and courthouses.

In 2021 the province expanded Alberta sheriffs' authority to also assist RCMP officers in rural areas.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Jeremy Thompson and Adam Lachacz

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