Premier Smith said gangs were terrorizing the city from encampments but the EPS Guns and Gangs Unit couldn’t find any

The Edmonton Police Service (EPS)’s Gangs and Guns unit gave themselves a pat on the back at the Thursday, April 18 meeting of the Edmonton Police Commission (EPC), in a presentation that boasted of clearing two murders and securing nine convictions in 2023. 

Missing from the report was any mention of gang activity or any arrests of gang members in encampments, which was ostensibly the reason for the city of Edmonton and the Edmonton Police Service’s brutal escalation of encampment sweeps earlier this year

When they went to the encampments to look for gangs and guns, they just couldn’t find any, explained Deputy Chief Warren Dreichel.

“We found that when we started doing the encampment work the gangs left very quickly from those environments,” said the Deputy Chief. “The focus of the encampment work was primarily to get people the help they needed and not necessarily all about dealing with gang activity.”

Deputy Chief Warren Dreichel speaks to the media after the Edmonton Police Commission meeting on April 18, 2024.

Dreichel’s description might come as a surprise to those getting their information about encampments from Danielle Smith. The Premier spent much of early 2024 spreading lurid tales of crime and carnage in Edmonton’s encampments—a bit eventually caught on tape when she delivered it to a room of business elite and conservative donors at Calgary’s Ranchmen’s Club.

“Guns. Deadly fentanyl. Sexual assaults. It ends now! Violent and organized gangs are terrorizing our vulnerable populations within encampments. This is not safe for anyone. My government will continue to do what is necessary to restore public safety throughout Alberta,” said Danielle Smith on Twitter on January 3, 2024

Superintendent Rob Gill of the Guns and Gangs Unit told the commission that the unit’s success rate for getting people out of the gang lifestyle is “near zero.”. 

“We offer an olive branch for them to get out of the lifestyle but our success rate is low,” said Gill. 

According to Gill, incarceration is the unit’s primary tool for trying to get adult gang members out of the gang lifestyle. A 2018 CBC report found that around 10 per cent of incarcerated people are in a prison gang and that that number is likely under-reported. That report also found that the Prairies had the highest number of prison gangs. 

The “near zero” effectiveness of the unit in getting gang members out of the gang lifestyle makes more sense when you learn what senior leaders within the Guns and Gangs unit actually do. “The Quiet Professional,” a podcast produced by the Edmonton Police Association, interviewed Sgt. Ryan Ferry of the Guns and Gangs Unit back in 2022, and he explained then:

“We used to tear through the south side and just start picking off gangsters. We’d figure out where they live and what they drive and look for them and stop them constantly and try and figure out what they were up to,” said Ferry. 

One success the Guns and Gangs Unit tried to claim in their presentation was their seizure last year of  more than $4.5 million in criminalized drugs. Forty per cent of that amount, or $1.8 million, was from a single drug bust of 40.5 kilograms of cocaine. But while the unit was able to boast of the biggest cocaine bust in Edmonton history when it happened, the charges associated with that seizure were stayed by prosecutors a few months afterward, with no reason given

Net increase of 50 cops

EPS also gave a presentation Thursday concerning recruitment and attrition. After a two year period where attrition outpaced recruiting, in 2023 EPS grew by a net of 50 cops. The temporary downswing in recruiting was attributed to both COVID-19 and the defund the police movement. 

In 2023 half of the cops who left the service retired, 44 per cent resigned and only one was dismissed. On the civilian side five workers were fired in 2023. There are roughly twice as many police officers than civilians in the EPS. 

According to the report a “high number of sworn members take advantage of their pension eligibility, retiring at 25 years of service with full pensions and transitioning into other employment (either within the EPS as a civilian member or outside of the EPS).”

Amongst the resignations 46% (17 out of 37) of the members left the EPS and went to another police service, 19% (7 out of 37) left policing altogether, and 19% (7 out of 37) resigned within the 18-month probationary period due to lack of fit.

The EPS is forecasting another net increase to sworn member headcount in 2024 however it’s also forecasting a $5 million over-spend on overtime this year in its latest budget update

When I asked Superintendent Andria Wasylyshen of the Training Development and Recruiting Division when the EPS expects to start filling those shifts without resorting to overtime she said she didn’t know. 

“I don’t know that that’s for me to speak to. I think right now we’re just focused on recruiting and filling the vacancies that we do have. That’s a longer term, I guess, purview right now and we are working towards that but when we’ll get there I can’t say for sure right now,” said Wasylyshen. 

Andria Wasylyshen is the daughter of former EPS chief Bob Wasylyshen. Her brother, Mike Wasylyshen, another EPS cop, was promoted to sergeant despite having a criminal record. Public criticism of that decision later led EPS to update their promotion policy.