New Alberta police force an old idea: experts

·5 min read

Alberta’s recent proposal to create a provincial police force is a long-persisting policy solution in search of a problem full of holes, say experts.

On Aug. 16 Alberta’s United Conservative Party released more details on their proposal to shelf the RCMP and bring in a new provincial police force. The plan includes bringing 275 more officers to rural Alberta, with a minimum requirement of 10 officers in each detachment in the province.

But Jared Wesley, professor of political science at the University of Alberta, said this idea has been kicked around for several decades and never wins the popular support of residents.

The provincial police force is a policy idea in search of a solution, said Wesley, and the current proposal won’t improve policing in the province.

Rather, the idea is more than 20 years old and won’t go away, Wesley said.

Albertans may trace the provincial police force concept back to the Fair Deal Panel’s suggestion after Alberta’s conservative party returned to power in 2019, but Wesley traces the idea back to a letter written in the early 2000s to then-premier Ralph Klein.

In January 2001 an open letter — known as "the Firewall Letter" — was written to Klein by seven prominent conservatives in Alberta, including Stephen Harper, who was president of the National Citizens Coalition at the time. The letter outlined strategies to protect Alberta from Ottawa’s influence, and included the creation of an Alberta pension plan to collect revenue from personal income tax and create a provincial police force.

Wesley said the idea was never about money, but rather a fight against what the conservative movement at the time considered social engineering by the federal government, as Ottawa was moving forward with policies to support increased diversity in hiring practices.

“These are conservative ideas from the last century that don't want to die, even though they've been vetted by conservative governments ... they just won't work from a fiscally conservative standpoint,” Wesley said.

Public response to recent reports on a provincial police force have been “lukewarm at best,” including on the cost analysis, Wesley said.

The latest provincial police force model isn’t solving a problem, it's a way for the province to try to gain leverage over the federal government to get concessions, Wesley said, adding the province is currently pushing for changes to fiscal transfers.

“Basically [the province] is saying the federal government doesn’t help Alberta when it’s down and they feel like, by building a firewall around Alberta, it’ll send a message that Alberta is not to be taken for granted,” Wesley said.

But it's difficult to make an argument in favor of creating a provincial police force, Wesley said, as the funding for RCMP will come off of Ottawa’s budget and move onto Alberta's budget.

Currently Ottawa subsidizes the RCMP. The UCP has recently reported that it currently costs the province and municipalities about $500 million annually for the RCMP.

In 2019-2020 the total cost sat at $672 million, with Ottawa paying 30 per cent, or around $170 million. If the province transitions to a provincial police force, Alberta will lose RCMP funding from Ottawa, and will have to foot the bill on its own.

The idea continues to persist in Alberta because those in power want to move forward with it ideologically, Wesley said, but the concept still doesn't have popular support among Albertans.

“Albertans, it doesn’t matter where they live, don’t support this,” Wesley said.

Currently, two front-runners in the UCP leadership race, Travis Toews and Danielle Smith, are advocating for the removal of the RCMP and moving forward with a provincial police force.

For an Alberta police force to form, a lot of stars would have to align, Wesley said, but a win for either of those candidates would certainly push the project forward.

Doug King, a professor in justice studies at Mount Royal University, said the most recent plan is not well crafted.

“It’s so full of holes that you just kind of shake your head,” King said.

One big problem with the plan is the provincial government's use of “sleight of hand” when it comes to the number of officers in rural Alberta, King said. The promise is for a minimum of 10 officers at each detachment, however King said this is just moving around the same number of officers already in the province.

Currently there are 2,200 provincial RCMP officers in 103 detachments. King says the province's proposal would see distribution of that same number of officers, but to fewer detachments.

“If you look at the proposed map of the layout of detachments under the provincial police, [geographically] the detachments actually grow [in size] ... from what the RCMP is doing,” King said.

Response times are also unlikely to improve with this change, King said.

And the 275-officer promise, though at first blush looks great, is just a redistribution of officers from other communities across Alberta, said King.

“It's basically the old adage of stealing from Peter to pay Paul,” King said.

King said he anticipates the province will struggle to recruit new officers, as many current Mounties will just leave Alberta to stick with the RCMP.

In early August, at the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police conference in Quebec, King said the number one complaint among the police chiefs was that forces across the country can’t attract enough qualified applicants.

Alberta already struggles to recruit people to an array of professions, including health-care and education, said King.

Working for the RCMP provides opportunities to travel across the country, which appeals to many young recruits, King said — something that will be lost with the creation of a provincial police force, thereby adding to the hiring challenge.

Currently the RCMP foots the bill for training and recruitment — a cost the province will have to swallow with a provincial police force, King said.

The cost to run a provincial police force in Alberta is projected at $1 billion, King said. This includes training and recruitment, which in the current RCMP model is paid for by the federal government, but with a switch to a provincial force would become Alberta's financial burden.

Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette