Tent cities, drug crime and photo radar: Edmonton Police Chief looks to 2020 in year-end interview
EDMONTON -- With nearly a year of experience as the city's top cop under his belt, Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee is reflecting on the year that was — and changes the department is eyeing as it heads into 2020.
McFee was sworn in as the city's 23rd chief on Feb. 1, 2019, having taken the position after serving as Saskatchewan's Deputy Minister of Corrections and Policing.
Prior to that, he spent eight years as police chief in Prince Albert, Sask.
In a wide-ranging interview, McFee spoke with CTV News Edmonton's David Ewasuk about everything from tent cities to drug-fuelled crime to photo radar.
"I would say that I'm pretty optimistic for 2020 to be able to get at this a little bit, and that boils down to the first instincts of our people," he said. "We've got to go out and get some new pieces in relation to technology and stuff, but I think the people part is pretty darn solid."
McFee said last year, he took a ride-along with his wife to view Edmonton's tent cities and homeless population, and noted that with a 70 per cent occupancy rate at area shelters, housing isn't the biggest part of the societal problem.
"We have a housing strategy, a homeless strategy, a poverty strategy, a mental health strategy, an addictions strategy, AFST strategy, and we haven't stopped to realize it's most of the people in every strategy, that's our vulnerable population," said McFee.
"You're way more successful when you stabilize mental health and addictions, then go to housing first. I think the city's doing some really great work in this area."
McFee said the department wants to align with more partners who work with vulnerable and homeless populations, saying there is still "a lot of work to do in that space."
He said the answer does not lie in forcibly breaking up tent cities, like the one that sprung up near the Bissell Centre downtown in summer 2019.
The city's Housing First initiative found in its latest count that more than 1,600 Edmontonians remain homeless, which is down from the year before.
While homelessness rates are falling, numbers suggest they're still disproportionately divided by age and race.
METH USE AND PROPERTY CRIME
Another problem plaguing vulnerable populations is drug use. The chief says he's fully aware of the latest methamphetamine epidemic, which comes at a time when job losses are high.
"Drugs are cyclical and what's different about meth right now is I think it went from $100 [per gram] to $30, so it's cheap," said McFee. "It's very pure right now, what we're seeing on the streets, based on some of the intelligence that we get, so it's obviously having a significant impact."
McFee is also mindful of the burden meth use is creating on law enforcement and citizens, saying it accounts for a large chunk of the city's property crime.
"We've linked it to some of obviously our violence, we've linked it to a lot of our pursuits, so I mean, it's disproportionately involved in a lot of our criminal activity. It's certainly involved in our property crime," he said
But he cautioned against employing another drug strategy to fix meth addiction. McFee believes the solution lies in how police and the city deal with addicts.
"Focus on a strategy of how we deal with our vulnerable populations, I think we actually start to change the way we do our business," he said.
As for supervised drug consumption sites, McFee said EPS will continue to maintain a large police presence, but said the goal of such sites is not to reduce crime.
"The thing that I'm most interested in from a police and safety perspective is how many people are we taking out of the system? Out of the system means connected to services, better chance for success, better chance to obviously give back to a stable life and not just exclusively," he said.
"How we measure, for instance, naloxone and NARCAN usage, that's part of the core business."
EDIBLES AND CANNABIS USE ON THE FORCE
While marijuana legalization has been largely uneventful for the Edmonton Police Service, the department is watching closely as legal edibles start to make their way into local cannabis stores.
McFee said he doesn't believe they will bring a large increase in crime, but there are risks — especially when children are involved.
"I think we better pay attention, especially the edible with the kids," he said. "You can eat a few of these things and it doesn't hit you right away, it increases your opportunity for something bad to happen."
Regardless, McFee believes edibles are more of a health issue than a crime issue, and health authorities will deal with it as such.
As far as officers go, EPS maintains a zero-tolerance policy with any kind of drugs, including cannabis.
But for anyone hoping to become a new recruit, past cannabis use won't matter.
"The end of the day is, having used marijuana in the past is not going to stop you from being a police officer," said McFee.
It's arguably the least popular part of traffic enforcement in Edmonton, but McFee said the city's photo radar program has been "highly successful" after seeing data from the University of Alberta.
"I know people think about it as, 'Well it's just trying to get money in a cash grab,' but a lot of that money, if not most of it is going back into, and it's not owned by us, it's the city itself."
He said photo radar has actually reduced the number of accidents and the risk of crashes on the road.
"It's one thing, I think from a safety perspective, it's totally avoidable. If you don't speed, you don't get a ticket," he said, adding he's even been dinged by photo radar.
McFee wants the public to know EPS plays a limited role in how photo radar operates in the city, and that the revenue doesn't go to the department.
"I like the fact that the revenue is outside of policing, because we're not doing it for revenue," he said.
Money generated by tickets funds various traffic safety programs in the city, hauling in $22 million in 2018.
It's prompted opposition from groups like Edmonton Cash Cows, which advocates for traffic safety without the use of photo radar.
Finally, McFee said that even with a $5-million budget shortfall projected this year, no current EPS members are losing their jobs — at least for now.
"Long story short, the money for the most part is in the system," he said. "When you actually look at some of our budget, I have to give council a lot of credit…because they actually have a funding formula for the police that's a four-year projection."
He said his focus will be to shift resources into areas that have higher impact, so the department gets a better bang for its buck.
"I'm optimistic. I think we can hopefully use it for strategic advantage," he said.