Edmonton police chief launches community safety and well-being bureau

Edmonton police chief launches community safety and well-being bureau

The Edmonton police chief has launched a new community safety and well-being unit to reduce demand on service.

The bureau will focus on easing pressure on front-line officers and investigative services while diverting people from the justice system, police chief Dale McFee told the police commission at a meeting Thursday.

"We need a group that's working upstream on community safety and well-being, taking stuff out of the system," McFee said. "Police control all intake into the justice system. Nothing comes into the justice system without going through the hands of police. We need to sort intake better."

The chief emphasized that police would not let up on crime and gangs. But McFee said a better way is needed to deal with growing calls for service involving non-criminal matters, such as mental health incidents or public intoxication.

"Today we've been mostly relentless over here, and the feeder system or the intake of the system is overwhelmed," said McFee. "That keeps growing because the marginalized component, the vulnerable, the poverty, the trauma is growing and we have no way of turning down the taps."

As an example, McFee pointed to the disproportionate number of calls for service in Edmonton involving crystal meth.

"So there are two ways to deal with that," he said. "You can deal with an enforcement model and arrest everybody that has meth and is using it, but they're addicted. And if you don't deal with that, on this end at the same time, all you're doing is going to disproportionately put people in the justice system."

Instead, said McFee, an enforcement strategy that simultaneously tackles addiction is needed.  

It's an underlying approach McFee is known for internationally as one of the architects of a crime-fighting strategy known as Hub model, which he launched in 2011 as police chief in Prince Albert, Sask.

The model is based on a multi-agency intervention that mobilizes social services for people at elevated risk before harm is done or a crime is committed.

The Hub model has since spread to 140 locations, from British Columbia to Prince Edward Island and Massachusetts.

On Thursday, McFee praised the depth and talent of his police service but said restructuring would get the talent to the right areas to make the biggest impact. The new unit will be led by a deputy chief.

McFee noted Edmonton has the second worst crime rate in the country.

"We can change that," he said. "But you have to have a mechanism and a structure that can lead that change." 

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca

@andreahuncar