Fire the chief or resign, police commissioners

Edmonton police chief Dale McFee finally emerged, Punxsutawney Phil-like, to speak about the reasons why his officers used pepper spray and batons at dawn to clear a pro-Palestinian protest encampment at the University of Alberta quad over the weekend. And because we are stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque time loop McFee employed a cynical trope political leaders have used for nearly two centuries to violently smash effective protest movements—outside agitators

“Left ungoverned, student encampments are ripe targets for exploitation and recruitment by professional agitators with bad intentions,” said McFee in prepared remarks read aloud at the online-only police commission meeting on May 16. 

This is an obvious lie that no one should believe for a second. 

McFee then went on to compare the Palestine solidarity protest encampment that was asking the university to disclose and divest from investments in companies involved in the genocide Israel is perpetrating to the Ottawa convoy movement. He asked rhetorically what he should have done if the convoy had set up in the quad instead. A bizarre comparison, considering the Ottawa Police let the convoy set up an encampment in the heart of the nation’s capital that lasted three weeks, with the convoy ending up getting many of their demands met. 

While no police commissioners had any questions for the chief, commissioner Irfan Chaudhry did request detailed information on EPS policy regarding name tags, and clarity on policy and guidelines on managing protests and the use of force.

That was all the civilian oversight that the Edmonton Police Commission was able to muster. The commission could have used its power to fire Chief McFee with cause for the debacle at the University of Alberta over the weekend. They chose not to. 

Hiring and firing the police chief is one of the few actual powers that the police commission has. While there’s a lot of talk about civilian oversight, governance and policy, it’s all for show. The police chief and everyone he commands know who’s really in charge—the chief. And if you can’t hold the chief accountable when he, or his underlings, make catastrophic errors, why serve on the police commission? 

If a police commissioner in Edmonton or Calgary happens to be reading this, you have two options— try to fire your police chief or resign. If you want to stand behind the police’s actions over the past week you can make that choice, but history will not look at you kindly. 

Photo by Kate Haskell. Licensed via Creative Commons.

If you serve on any of the various bodies that give police legitimacy, such as the Chief’s Community Council or the Sexual Orientation Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) Advisory Council, resign—preferably as loudly as possible. 

If you sit on the board of the police foundations in Edmonton or Calgary, you should just quit. There’s no need for you to lend your credibility and name to an institution that would approach a non-violent protest encampment as if they were going to war.

The police are not an institution that can be fixed from the inside. Stop wasting your time and ruining your reputation.

Police commission notebook

Other items of note from the Edmonton Police Commission meeting today.

  • The police commission chair, UCP-appointed John McDougall, made the meeting online-only after police commissioners got scared of people snapping their fingers and the odd mild disruption at the city council meeting earlier this week. Utter cowardice. Being in a public oversight role means you have to deal with the public. 
  • The police commission approved a whistleblower policy for complaints against the chief that neither guarantees the anonymity of the complainant nor that their job would be protected. The policy says that complainants probably shouldn’t use it. “Reporters of serious wrongdoing are encouraged to use alternate reporting channels whenever possible.”
  • The EPS released their Control Tactics Report for 2023 which shows how often they use violence. Notably, this report doesn’t include any incidents that were investigated by ASIRT, i.e. any incident that either killed or seriously injured someone.
    • Downtown and Northwest were the divisions which saw the most use of force.
    • There was a 45 per cent year-over-year increase in cops using their tasers on citizens.
    • The report also showed a 46 per cent year-over-year increase in the number of times an Edmonton cop pointed their gun at a citizen—from 600 to 873. There was also a 12 per cent year-over-year increase in cops pulling their guns out of their holsters and putting them in the “low ready” position.
    • The EPS seem particularly fond of their new toy, the ARWEN (called ERIW in the report), a launcher that shoots blunt plastic projectiles. It was used 564 times in 2023, the first year with data. 
  • The Professional Standards Branch also released their annual report. They expect the newly created Police Review Commission, the provincially mandated body that will investigate police complaints, to be online by December 2025. Eight police discipline matters were concluded via the disciplinary hearing process in 2023. 
    • In addition to complaints, the PSB is also responsible for collecting compliments from community members. They got 40 compliments, compared to 1,224 complaints.
    • The Professional Standards Branch and Control Tactics Reports are notably absent from the annual EPS report. 

*Editor's note: Chief McFee's quote has been updated for accuracy.