I was intimidated by the Edmonton Police Service at a press conference

Very rarely does a journalist in Canada have to talk to their lawyer before attending a press conference and make sure they’re available that afternoon in case you get arrested. But this is what it’s like to cover the Edmonton Police Service as a journalist who aims to hold the police accountable.  

While I avoided arrest I was told by a senior police officer my questions wouldn’t be answered and I would be escorted out if I made a scene. Then they cooked up a reason to stop me from even being able to ask a question. 

All of this happened at a press conference held the afternoon of February 1, 2023 in the atrium at the Edmonton Police Service Downtown HQ. After I showed up I was spotted by Enyinnah Okere, the chief operations officer and one of Chief Dale McFee’s top deputies who immediately went into the room with EPS Chief of Police Dale McFee, Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis and city councillor Sarah Hamilton and others. As I stood around and waited for the presser to begin I was approached by Deputy Chief Darren Derko and a colleague who came from the same direction as the room with the VIPs, both of whom were speakers at the press conference. 

“So we’ve been told that no one is going to be taking your questions today. And that if you create a scene or if you do anything you will be asked to leave and probably escorted out. Ok. Do you understand?” Said Derko. 

Derko was flanked by Superintendent Derek McIntyre, the officer in charge of the Healthy Streets Operation Centre. They both loomed over me on a landing that was a few steps above where the media were assembled. 

The press conference was sparsely attended, but an officer named Travis Derocher made a point of getting into my personal space. He got so close to me that he touched my elbow and side with the butt of his gun. 

Although there was plenty of space all throughout the atrium he chose to go for a schoolyard attempt at physical intimidation. I told him to not touch me with his gun and to give me some room but Derocher refused to give me any space. I eventually moved slightly to the right and he eventually backed off. But the message was sent. Not only were they not going to take my questions but they were going to try and unnerve me as well. 

I know Officer Derocher. I’ve run into him at least three times over the course of the summer as I photographed the displacement of unhoused people by the Edmonton Police as they tore down encampments. He was one of the officers in charge of those encampment evictions and he knows who I am. 

Officer Travis Derocher of the Edmonton Police Service overseeing an encampment eviction on May 11, 2022 at the corner of 96 Street and 105A Avenue. 

The announcement itself was more symbolic than anything. Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis announced a pilot project where 12 whole Sheriffs would patrol downtown starting at the end of February with the program running for 15 weeks. Their patrols will be part of the Healthy Streets Operations Centre, a community hub established by the city of Edmonton and the EPS to deal with social disorder in Chinatown and other inner-city neighborhoods. 

This pilot project neatly coincides with the upcoming provincial election and is a shockingly cynical political move by Ellis and Chief Dale McFee, the most powerful man in Edmonton, to try and get the UCP another term in office. Premier Danielle Smith and her public safety minister have been amplifying bad faith reporting on downtown Edmonton done by the far right news outlet the Western Standard in order to drum up fear about inner city crime. Then Ellis and McFee swoop in with the solution, more police. Not more housing, not more mental healthcare, not more supervised consumption sites or harm reduction sites.

The UCP pilot is going to have more impact on politics than it will on public safety. Sheriffs in Alberta have two primary responsibilities, traffic enforcement on highways and providing security and prisoner transport at courthouses. They don’t have even the meager training that EPS officers get on unconscious bias or cultural sensitivity. Multiple sources have also told me that the Edmonton Police Association is seriously considering filing a grievance with EPS over the deployment of Sheriffs in Edmonton. 

The police are powerful political actors and it’s been quite a sight seeing Edmonton’s police chief flexing his political muscles since last summer. Not only did he get a $34.5 million year over year budget increase from city council but he’s doing everything possible short of door knocking and donating to the UCP to get his preferred government re-elected

Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis stands behind Edmonton Police Service Chief Dale McFee at a press conference held on Feb. 1, 2023 at the Downtown Police Headquarters of the EPS.

As the official press conference ended I parked myself next to the microphone that was set up for the media. We were then informed that technical difficulties meant the mic I was standing at wasn’t working. Instead the press secretary took questions from handpicked members of the media. I was not called upon.  

The EPS and the UCP are more than happy to work hand in glove, both to shut out and intimidate a critical journalist and avoid public accountability and to continue to use the blunt instrument of policing to deal with rampant homelessness, social disorder and concentrated poverty. 

Chief McFee has a saying he regularly invokes at press conferences where he’s stumping for more enforcement, police presence and police funding. “Housing alone isn’t going to solve this problem.” Well, we’ve tried armed police overseeing the eviction of homeless people from their encampments thousands of times and it’s failed unequivocally. 

Even city councilor Andrew Knack gets it, “I struggle when I hear people suggest that housing alone will not solve everything. While I agree that we also need addictions/mental health support, there hasn’t been a meaningful amount of 24/7 supportive housing built in the last decade,” said Knack on Twitter.

“If policing alone could solve it, it would have been solved years ago considering EPS is one of the best funded police services in the country and they’ve had an approximately $300 million increase in their budget over the last two decades.”