Edmonton police conducting fewer street checks, data shows

Fear of public criticism and more rigorous requirements have resulted in a sharp decline in street checks initiated by officers, Edmonton police say.

In 2018, police performed 11,051 street checks. That's 30 per cent fewer stops compared to 2017 when officers street checked 15,910 people.

"Is de-policing happening? When you go out and you ask the front lines, my answer is yes," police chief Dale McFee told a commission meeting Thursday where the figures were presented.  

"And it's for two reasons. We're pushing back that the quality needs to be better. And that's okay, but it's also the fear that it's going to be scrutinized and criticized in the public to doing things that are actually part of police work."

McFee reiterated his support for the controversial practice but signalled changes are coming.

"We've got to recognize that this is a part of police work and I don't think we should ever back away from that," said McFee.

"Do we need to look at this differently? I don't think we're done reviewing this because we have to come up with something simple that the public can understand. I always use the term that my mom can understand. And right now I don't think my mom could understand it to be bluntly honest with you."

Declining numbers are part of a larger trend in Edmonton where on average, police were conducting 26,000 street checks annually for several years before the practice came under increased public scrutiny in 2015.

Street checks, also known as carding, is the practice of randomly stopping and documenting people, which critics say unfairly targeted some racialized groups.

Lawful vs. unlawful checks

On Thursday, the police chief distinguished between lawful street checks and unlawful ones, which he suggested are the issue but don't happen often in Edmonton.

"A lawful street check obviously with you have the authority," said McFee, who cited examples such as stopping people to ask questions when a crime committed in a neighbourhood.

CBC

'An unlawful is where you're just randomly going up and checking somebody for no apparent reason, just because whatever they're doing, you're making an assumption that they're involved in criminal activity. That would be classified as unlawful."

Under McFee's leadership as former deputy minister of corrections and policing, Saskatchewan introduced reforms that banned checks that are random or target people of colour.

The policy widened the scope of what are now called "contact interviews" to include checks on wellness and community safety — an approach McFee spoke in favour of on Thursday.

In 2017, a CBC Edmonton investigation revealed Indigenous and black people were much more likely to be stopped by Edmonton police, prompting calls for a provincial ban.

The former NDP government consulted with law enforcement agencies and community groups across Alberta but never formulated a provincial guideline for street checks. 

UCP government to review consultation

"A United Conservative government will review the community consultation undertaken by the province on this issue and next steps will be outlined in due course," wrote Christine Myatt, spokesperson for the office of Premier-designate Jason Kenney, on Friday.

The Edmonton police commission initiated its own third-party review of the practice, which led to a series of recommendations released last year.

Critics expressed disappointment that the report did not say whether disproportionate stops among racialized people amounted to racial profiling.

The report called for better dialogue with community members and increased diversity among the ranks, which police have been pro-actively pursuing.

Edmonton police service, meanwhile, launched an internal review in 2016 which led to a number of changes. Each street check document is now examined by a team to ensure both the stop and report are done properly. The team consists of a crime analyst, officers from the intelligence branch and members of the equity and human rights division.

The new process roots out biases, such as assuming someone uses drugs or belongs to a gang. In a sample of documents looked at by EPS, that type of information, along with past criminal behaviour, only showed up occasionally, Insp. Warren Driechel told the commission Thursday.

'So we try to remove those kinds of statements and documents from within the street check reports," Driechel said. "We really try to stress within our membership when conducting street checks it's about the situation. It's not about the person, so bringing past information in may be irrelevant and we flag those for change."

The sample also showed officers are informing people why they are being stopped as recommended, added Driechel.

While commissioner Karen MacKenzie praised efforts to engage with the community, she said more needed to be done to address perceptions of bias.

"There's still the perception that there are certain groups that are being targeted unfairly whether it's Indigenous community, if you were a young African Canadian male you might be targeted  — whether it's true or not — that's the perception."

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca

@andreahuncar