Funding the police: How the Edmonton police budget increased by $34.5 million in less than a year

Edmonton’s city council has increased the city policy budget for 2023 from $384 million, as of December 2021, to a projected $418.5 million, according to the city’s just-released operational budget. That’s an increase of $34.5 million, or nearly 9 per cent, over the last year to the city's single largest budget line item. 

Screenshot from the city of Edmonton's 2023 operational budget.

And that number is likely to keep going up. The contracts for the Edmonton Police Association, the Senior Officers Association, and Civic Service Union 52 are all in various stages of negotiation. Those contracts expired in 2020 and any settlements with wage increases in 2021 or 2022, which are likely given the realities of inflation and the state of labour negotiations in Alberta, will be paid out as a lump sum payout. 

The repeated increases to the police budget are hard to square with councilors’ own statements about police funding—most of the current city council said during the election that they favored freezing or reducing the police budget, for example—and directly contrasts with the Safer For All report that the city commissioned in response to mass pressure from Black Lives Matter Edmonton and a 13,000-signature petition campaign. 

The most important recommendation of the Safer for All report was simple–freeze the police budget and take the money that would have gone to police and re-invest it back into housing, mental health supports and civilian-led crisis diversion. 

Robert Houle, a member of the committee which produced the Safer for All Report, says he’s disappointed but not surprised. “Leadership within the city and council have shown little empathy for marginalized people thus far. The Community Safety and Wellbeing Strategy does not seek to do things differently, and still places law enforcement at the centre of all ‘solutions,’” said Houle.  

“What is utterly disappointing is witnessing city councillors who campaigned on lowering police funding, flip flop and hand bags of cash right back into their hands. If you factor in capital asks, the EPS is trending towards a budget of half a billion dollars. We are already seeing increased policing in the downtown core, and unhoused people being targeted at an increased rate. Both of these outcomes were predicted, and counter to what the city manager stated in order to receive increased funding,” said Houle.  

Houle has appeared on the Progress Report podcast as a guest multiple times. 

One surprising argument from city admin in the budget is that not funding the continually increasing police budget would actually harm marginalized people. In the section titled Gender Based Analysis Plus (GBA+), the city claims that, “the service reductions that will result from not funding this service package would disproportionately impact some of the most vulnerable and underserved individuals in Edmonton. This includes racialized, women, 2SLGBTQ+, Indigenous, newcomer, and other marginalized communities.”

GBA+ analysis is an internationally used policy and research tool created by the government of Canada that helps to identify who benefits and who is excluded from an organization’s decisions by using an intersectional lens.

Ted Rutland, a professor of urban studies at Concordia University and an expert on public security and policing, told us that using GBA+ in the police budget this way is inappropriate. 

“[Funding the police] doesn’t actually benefit those marginalized communities at all and makes them more vulnerable to surveillance and arrest,” said Rutland.  

“GBA+ analysis applies very differently to police than it does to nearly every other institution. If we’re listening to Black or Indigenous feminists, we’re talking about defunding the police and investing in community. The most credible feminist organizations out there are not talking about funding the police but investing in services and supports that prevent gender based violence and support survivors.” 

How the police budget got so big

Edmonton’s city council has had four key opportunities to adjust the police budget this year. Each time they’ve come under heavy pressure from a coalition of business interests, the police lobby, the UCP government and some voices within city admin itself. And each time, council has chosen to increase police funding.

On December 15, 2021 Edmonton city council voted to increase the Edmonton Police Budget by $1 million in order to cover the human resources cost of making the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation a statutory holiday. Incredibly this was sold by some media outlets as a cut to the police budget because the police were requesting more money but only got $1 million in additional funds. 

On June 7, Edmonton city council voted to increase the police budget by $22 million, raising the base budget to $407 million. This time the justification was a projected shortfall in revenue from photo radar: the UCP government increased its take from cities’ photo radar fines from about a third to half in 2019 and policy decisions means photo radar is raising less money. City council chose to replace the photo radar revenue with a guaranteed $22 million top-up out of city funds..

On August 15 Edmonton city council voted to increase the Edmonton police budget again when they voted for a new operations hub in Chinatown. The pro-funding campaign leaned heavily into emotional appeals, using the murder of two local residents to argue that police funding was desperately required to staunch a surge in violent crime.. It was later revealed that the accused murderer was dropped off by the RCMP in Edmonton by the RCMP in violation of his bail conditions. While the RCMP did alert the EPS about the dropoff this important fact seemed to have slipped through the cracks when Chief McFee was speaking to Edmonton city council about the issue. That vote meant another $4.5 million for the EPS budget in 2023. Councillor Andrew Knack, one of the councillors who voted for the funding, says that he wants this money to actually come out of EPS’s budget and not the city’s, and committed to make a motion to do so this winter, though there is no guarantee that motion would pass. 

Finally, on Oct. 7, Edmonton city council voted to implement a new police funding formula that would increase the EPS budget for 2023 by $7 million bringing us all the way to the $418.5 million police budget for 2023.

Complicating all of this is the fact that the EPS are projecting that they will run an unprecedented $4 million deficit in 2022. Municipal departments are supposed to have reserves to cover unexpected deficits but the EPS has blown through those reserves and now find themselves in a projected deficit situation. The only reason given in the latest update for why they’re running the deficit is higher than expected fuel costs.  

As Edmonton city council heads into their big four-year budget cycle these increases to the police budget, already the largest single line item in the municipal budget, have largely been locked in. The Edmonton Police Service has not been defunded, or even restrained. Instead, and despite commitments to the contrary from many councillors, Edmonton’s city council has voted four times in the past year to increase the police budget by $34.5 million.