COVID-19, backlash the toughest challenges over the last year: Edmonton police chief

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EDMONTON — The chief of Edmonton Police Service says the force has not only been stretched thin due to COVID-19, but many officers are also getting worn down from growing attacks on social media.

Dale McFee said COVID-19 and online hate against police have been the toughest challenges he's faced this past year.

"It's been a tough two-plus years here and, certainly, it's going to be awhile before we're out of this," McFee said in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press at the police service's headquarters in Edmonton City Centre mall.

The pandemic, he said, has caused more people to be on edge and led to more complicated calls for police.

McFee said negative online messages against police have also been growing since the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by officers in Minneapolis. Floyd's death sparked protests led by Black Lives Matter, including in Edmonton and Calgary.

A Leger and Association for Canadian Studies survey that year found a noticeable drop in the number of Canadians who said they trusted law enforcement. Seventy per cent of respondents said they trusted the police a lot or somewhat, a decline of nine per cent.

McFee said it's starting to become difficult to recruit new officers as a result of the negativity toward police.

"Not so much that we haven't been able to fill, but it's getting to that point where it's close," he said.

When asked why he thinks people have been critical of Edmonton police on social media, McFee said there were some disciplinary issues.

Several officers have been disciplined, including one who was suspended without pay for 30 hours after pleading guilty to one count of discreditable conduct and excessive use of force for his handling of an intoxicated man in December 2017. Last month, an Edmonton judge handed a $2,000 fine to another officer who drove his knee into a restrained First Nations man.

Edmonton police were also criticized for how they handled back-to-back violent attacks on Black Muslim women, including a case where a woman said she felt discouraged to report an attack after speaking to dispatch.

Race was also a concern when locals felt officers didn't do enough when protesters carried tiki torches during anti-lockdown protests.

"A lot of the complaints (we've received) were along the lines of customer service," said McFee. "Some of it was a dispatch, some of it was our traffic stops. There were some things in relation to how they were treated on a call.

"There's certain actions that we've done and certain things we're accountable (for) in relation to discipline. That's something I take very seriously as a chief of police," he added.

Over the last year, McFee said he connected with about 6,000 community members and sat through hundreds of meetings to learn more about how Edmonton police can gain trust with locals.

"We've introduced trauma awareness training, we've introduced bias awareness training, we've introduced a practicum with our recruits where they go work with some of our social service providers for a few days," McFee said. "We're seeing lots of things that have allowed us to pivot and make some good things happen."

Edmonton police said charges were laid in several of the hate-motivated events against Black Muslim women between December 2020 and April 2021, including three cases that were linked to the same person.

"In all cases, the accused were struggling with homelessness and addictions. No connections were made to any organized hate groups,” spokesperson Cheryl Sheppard said in an email.

McFee said calls for domestic violence, child exploitation and people in a mental crisis have also been on the rise in the city.

"The severity has gone up, which is something that we're paying close attention to," he said. "Overall, we're going to see people continue to be on edge because of the pandemic."

Police responded to hundreds of anti-lockdown rallies in 2021, he said, in addition to the Black Lives Matter protests.

"Last year we had 180 protests; this year we had 460," said the police chief.

Earlier this month, Edmonton's city council voted to reallocate $10.9 million to social agencies that will help with issues such as mental health calls rather than adding to police's $383-million budget.

McFee said working closely with social workers over the last year has had strong results.

"We've changed our focus and that's all pretty new," he said. "It's starting to trend positively."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 31, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version paraphrased McFee as saying he could see why Edmontonians may have lost faith in city police. In fact, he was answering a question about why people were critical of police on social media.

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