'We are going to fix this': Alberta sends sheriffs downtown to help EPS amid mounting safety concerns
Police officers in downtown Edmonton will receive reinforcements from sheriffs later this month as part of a new provincial public safety initiative.
Announced on Wednesday by the province's public safety minister, the Edmonton Police Service and Alberta Sheriffs will work together for a 15-week pilot program in "late February" to provide more officers and resources for policing downtown.
According to the province, the partnership stems from early work done by the Edmonton Public Safety and Community Response Task Force.
"As partners, EPS and the sheriffs will patrol inner-city neighbourhoods so communities can feel safe regardless of where they are or what time of day it is," said Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis.
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"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," Ellis added.
The minister said this is only the first "promising step towards a safer Edmonton," with further actions from the task force coming.
"We are going to fix this," Ellis pledged. "We are going to restore confidence."
'THE MISSION IS THE SAME'
Twelve sheriffs will augment EPS officers deployed as part of the Healthy Streets Operations Centre, a recently operationalized joint approach to tackling disorder in the Chinatown, Alberta Avenue and surrounding neighbourhoods.
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.
Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee explained the sheriffs would be paired with EPS officers to extend the hours of operation from five days a week to seven and 20 hours a day of coverage.
"Our downtown core, Chinatown and surrounding communities have felt the immense strain of a disproportionate growth in crime," McFee added. "Residents, business owners, service providers and those visiting or working in the core are losing hope."
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According to McFee, downtown crime rates have increased beyond pre-pandemic levels, with downtown and area violent crimes up by 10 per cent last year compared to 2021 — a "disproportionate" amount to other neighbourhoods.
Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis introduces the new reinforcements for EPS alongside Ward sipiwiyiniwak Coun. Sarah Hamilton, EPS Chief Dale McFee, Alberta Sheriffs Chief Farooq Sheikh, and members of the Chinatown community at EPS headquarters on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2023 (CTV News Edmonton/John Hanson).
Currently, the health streets hub is operating out of Century Place, with the city and EPS working to find a permanent operations centre by the end of 2023.
McFee said EPS has hoped to explore this approach with sheriffs for two years and that current policing resources can "only be in so many places at one time."
"Having a uniformed presence with designated authority can greatly mitigate the disorder and violence that so negatively disrupts the community," he added. "Simply seeing an officer can have a marked impact on criminal activity and on the feelings and perceptions of safety within the community."
Two people were murdered in Edmonton's Chinatown in May 2022.
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Farooq Sheikh, Alberta Sheriffs' chief, said all officers part of the pilot program volunteered for the assignment and that resources will be shifted across the province to ensure coverage. The department's existing budget will cover their deployments.
"It is our intention that the Alberta Sheriffs will provide a reassuring and visible presence in the inner city," Sheikh said. "The setting may be different in this case, but the mission is the same, keeping Albertans safe."
Sheriffs are trained peace officers, and members taking part in the pilot will be temporarily reassigned.
Typically, sheriffs are focused on traffic safety enforcement on provincial highways, commercial vehicle inspections, prisoner escorts and security at the legislature and Alberta courthouses.
Since 2021, the province has expanded Alberta sheriffs' authority to assist RCMP officers in rural areas.
Under the Rural Alberta Provincial Integrated Defence Response (RAPID) initiative, sheriffs were permitted to respond to impaired driving and other traffic-related criminal offences.
At that time, the province said the move would help decrease response times and allow Mounties to focus on responding to higher-priority incidents or remain on active patrols.
Through RAPID, Alberta Fish and Wildlife officers were also given the green light to respond to RCMP requests for backup, as well as helping locate suspects or preserve crime scenes.
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NO WELL-BEING WITHOUT SAFETY: MCFEE
When asked if Calgary could expect a similar sheriff and police officer partnership, Ellis said the province is working with stakeholders and that "action" would also be taken there.
Mayor Amarjeet Sohi welcomed the provincial reinforcements but believes more has to be done to address some of the root causes of the disorder.
"I'm glad that the minister acknowledged that this is not going to be a silver bullet, that we need to do more work on tackling mental health, [the] addictions crisis and the crisis of homelessness."
McFee said having more officers on the ground is part of a safety solution to ensure community well-being.
"You can't have well-being without safety," McFee said. "There's a huge addiction issue to this. With addictions, particularly meth, comes violence."
"This isn't just a homeless problem," he added. "As a matter of fact, there's a serious crime problem and a violence problem. It is not always the homeless people that are creating this… Housing alone is not going to solve this problem.
"This actually needs presence. It needs the ability to put the right system at the right time on first contact."
With files from CTV News Edmonton's Jeremy Thompson
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