Edmonton police commission gets dangerously close to doing some governance, pulls back at last minute

Edmonton City councillor and police commissioner Anne Stevenson proposed a minor change to how reports on use-of-force tactics are compiled during a Sept. 21 police commission meeting. What happened next demonstrates just how ineffective an institution the Edmonton Police Commission is. 

Commission chair Eric Ambtman was caught flat-footed. Confusion reigned. Commission meetings are so stage-managed that even a minor motion to change a report no one reads anyway threw the commission meeting into a tizzy.

Councillor and commissioner Sarah Hamilton asked how hard it would be to change the report to reflect Stevenson’s proposed change. Although the chief technology officer said it wouldn’t be difficult, Ambtman proposed sending it back to committee.

Asked what to do by Ambtman, Chief Dale McFee recommended the matter go back to committee. 

Chief Dale McFee in a media scrum after the Edmonton Police Commission meeting on Sept. 21.

This is not how governance works. The chief is not in charge of how the police commission works, the police commission is. 

But the commission opted to not actually do any governance in front of the public’s prying eyes, so the commission bowed to the chair and chief’s demands.The motion proposing a minor change in how use-of-force reports are presented was sent back to the governance committee. 

It’s worth noting just how rare this is to see. When you compare a commission meeting to a city council there is just a lot more actual governance going on at city council meetings in the same building. Councillors will propose motions, ask the city manager uncomfortable questions and sometimes stuff actually happens where the outcome isn’t predetermined.. 

The police commission is, ostensibly, the police’s civilian oversight body. Commissioners might disagree publicly about the best way to perform their role, questions could conceivably be asked, motions made and amendments added. Actual to-and-fro over police oversight and governance is not only possible but necessary. Instead, we get something so stilted and stage-managed that a motion about a minor change to the presentation of a report will throw a 20-minute wrench into a meeting. 

I don’t believe police can be reformed and one of the reasons why is just how poorly civilian oversight boards do their job of providing oversight. 

Polls and force

An Edmonton Police Service-initiated citizen perception survey was released and discussed at last week’s commission meeting. It’s odd that the people with guns who are legally allowed to kill you if you don’t listen to them are permitted to poll their subjects, but here we are. 

If you search the survey for the word methodology, you won’t find a result. It’s also not a random sample, which pretty much invalidates the whole exercise. 

Survey participants were drawn from the ranks of the Edmonton Insight Community — a group of people who take surveys for free for the City of Edmonton, and the general public, via social media ads. The percentage of Edmonton Insight Community participants versus the general public wasn’t  disclosed and neither were the methods in attracting survey takers from social media. 

Commissioner Kemi Kufuor-Boakye was concerned that the sample was self-selected, questioning surveys’ value as a performance measurement tool. Kufuor-Boakye asked whether the commission is “collecting this information just to tick a box and to say we did it.”

The survey indicated a slight increase in the public’s favourability towards police, but a useful finding in an otherwise useless poll is just how effective the campaign of fear initiated by Chief McFee and the EPS has been. 

McFee became police chief in 2019. From 2020 to 2023, according to this poll, there has been a 23 per cent increase in Edmontonians who believe crime is increasing. But the highest crime rates in the past five years were actually in 2018 and 2019

Also at the meeting, a control tactics report was delivered by a cop wearing a bulletproof vest, which is certainly one way for a police officer to deliver a  report on use of force to a civilian oversight body. While it received effusive praise from the chair for the presentation’s clarity, the report shows a steady rise in the use of force by EPS cops. 

We are on track to set new record highs for the amount of times an Edmonton cop pulls their gun or Taser out, for taking people down to the ground (a “balance displacement," in the report’s euphemistic language) and joint manipulations. EPS has already seen eight people hospitalized with debilitating injuries in the first two quarters of this year, matching a five-year high in 2020.

The report shows a police force that is increasingly threatening its citizens with violence and laying its hands on an increasing number of Edmonton citizens. Troublingly, this report  also showed three fatalities for 2022, none of which received an ASIRT investigation. How did these people die? We don’t know. 

Final Notes

Three members of the public spoke at the meeting, a highlight as there has been little public participation in these meetings recently. All three spoke about the need for increased financial accountability and transparency for the Edmonton police budget. 

McFee praised his officers for their handling of the recent hate march outside of the Alberta Teachers’ Association building. He said there were 1,200 people in attendance. 

The chief boasted about the success of his brainchild, the inaugural Safety in our Cities conference, which saw 600 delegates from across North America congratulate each other on how great of a job they’re doing while drinking alcohol in a new and exciting city. The cost of this exercise is still unknown. 

The new zero-tolerance for illegal crime policies were discussed. “There’s a lot of science that says if there are rules, people will comply. We’re bringing those rules back,” said McFee about open-air drug use. Commission chair Ambtman repeatedly said that the public perception is bad around this initiative. 

“We need to find a way to get out in front of this because people believe they’re just arresting homeless addicts,” said Ambtman. “I have no doubt that the service is going to do this well… I just worry about the public perception.”

Unhoused people are also definitely getting “addiction treatment” in converted holding cells, just as the police said they were going to do. According to deputy chief Warren Driechel, the Integrated Care Centre is up and running in the downtown division. “Our members do have more options to get people off the street,” said Driechel. 

So far in 2023, 63 cops have left the EPS for a variety of reasons, outpacing projections. This high attrition level makes it very hard for McFee to deliver on promises made about staffing. 

Finally, and most importantly, Edmonton cops can smoke weed now. A new fit-for-duty policy was implemented that allows cops to ingest cannabis as long as there is a 24-hour gap between when the weed was smoked and the start of their shift. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.