Edmonton is headed for a crackdown

Yesterday's announcement made by Minister of Public Safety Mike Ellis and EPS Chief Dale McFee left me unsettled. Here's why.

Edmonton is headed for a crackdown
Clearly, they wanted to be seen in Edmonton’s pedways and City Centre Mall a day after the provincial announcement. Photo shared with Euan Feb 1.

Yesterday, EPS Chief Dale McFee joined UCP Minister of Public Safety Mike Ellis, Edmonton Councillor Sarah Hamilton, the Alberta Sheriffs Chief and a member of the Chinatown business association to announce more police presence in and around the downtown Edmonton area.

Translation: it’s a crackdown.

I provided some background and detail in a live-tweet frenzy on Feb 1 for further reading. A key line from Chief McFee was: "Police can only be in so many places at one time".

It's a compelling point when you compare it with the photo above, which shows a dozen officers making a clear show of force in Edmonton's downtown pedways in City Centre Mall. Could a dozen police be in more than one place, Chief McFee?

Beside the point in any case, because police don't keep us safe. They don't prevent crime. They do escalate violence and cause unnecessary and entirely preventable death. That's not public safety.

The increased force will be drawn from the Alberta Sheriffs, police who work directly under the Minister of Public Safety.

Normally, the Sheriffs are in charge of things like security around the Alberta legislature. By their Chief’s own reckoning, it sounds like they don't really have a whole lot to keep them busy, so redeploying them elsewhere kinda makes sense. Could I suggest into another field altogether? I hear snow removal can’t keep up.

The UCP recently announced a Public Safety Task Force for Edmonton (and a separate one for Calgary) that includes Chief McFee and Councillors Hamilton and Cartmell, neither of whom represents a ward touching the city centre. This announcement appears to be coming from that task force, which in December made reference to augmenting police presence in Alberta cities with the clear subtext of forcing unhoused people into addiction treatment.

So we’ve got cops and suburban councillors making decisions for downtown residents, businesses and unhoused neighbours. Who does this approach benefit?

Locking people up in advance of an election certainly plays well with the UCP base, who seem to believe that public safety is best achieved through violence rather than meeting people’s basic needs like housing.

Of note, the UCP have already forced Edmonton City Council to increase police funding as a direct result of last year's killing of two people in Chinatown following an utterly botched dumping of an unstable individual by RCMP in downtown Edmonton, which EPS lied about in terms of what they knew and when.

So what do we expect from here?

An extra two units patrolling 24/7 across Edmonton's downtown core. We already know that EPS had redeployed members of their downtown force elsewhere in Edmonton last year to create “more visibility” in the suburbs, but this created an artificial gap downtown they later argued could only be filled with additional patrols.

A crackdown like this could temporarily reduce ‘public disorder’ — a numbers game in which locking people away in temporary cells, remand or addiction treatment visibly reduces the number of people on the streets.

But it’s a solution only a cop’s best friend could get behind.

Meanwhile, we’re already seeing Calgary Police emboldened enough to post mocking bounty hunts on Twitter for people who skip their drug court (I won’t link it here for obvious reasons). Would they treat someone similarly for missing an AA meeting?

Now, I don't live in Edmonton, though I did from 2008 to 2013. But I make regular trips up there and join friends like Angie Staines at 4B Harm Reduction for outreach rounds.

When you walk around Boyle-McCauley, north of downtown, it's easy to spot the drug vendors and police cruisers that swap laps of the neighbourhood day and night. It's not so much a game of cat and mouse because little ever comes of it.

The real action, as far as the police presence is concerned, is in roughing up unhoused individuals, forcing them out of encampments, seizing small amounts of drugs and shuffling them away from businesses.

This pattern is critical to police, because it keeps them very, very busy. That means funding. And it relies on drug prohibition — without it, they would have no reason to be moving people this way and that. Since when is it illegal to have a nap in a park?

Which all explains why Chief McFee is dead against any form of drug decriminalization that doesn’t keep police at the centre: as long as there's probable cause, like somebody carrying or using drugs, you can shake them down.

Except nowadays, with the integration of the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program and Recovery-Oriented System of Care into policing across Alberta, police now have the power to force people into addiction treatment. It’s incarceration by another name.

Or put another way, it’s a pre-election strategy to temporarily disappear unhoused people.

I know what you’re thinking. Why don’t we just provide housing?

McFee: “Housing alone will not solve this,” an echo of what he said in a recent CBC Edmonton interview that I wrote about, and it’s really meant to signal that the problem, like drug use and decriminalization, is simply too complex to address. It needs more cops first.

Meanwhile, a few blocks from Boyle-McCauley, corporate high-rollers enjoy their meth, opiates and cocaine with impunity. It’s not a stereotype: drug use has no preference for demographics. Every income bracket and racial group sees its fair share of drug use. But some of it is more visible to the majority of us at ground level.

With police being among the UCP's top institutional allies going into this election, EPS Chief McFee even having shown up to a UCP fundraiser, it stands to reason that propping up policing in the city is going to play well with the base. Be sure to let your councillor know how you feel about it.

Edmonton: want to chat further about this and how it fits in with the drug toxicity crisis? I’ll be there for an event you should join, hosted by Councillor Michael Janz and some great organizations, on February 16 at Metro Cinema. RSVP here.

Read more