Edmonton's new police review panel under pressure before it gets off ground

·5 min read

A new task force set up to analyze the role of policing and safety in Edmonton is facing questions about its mandate and makeup ahead of its first meeting next week.

The city's community safety and well-being task force includes 11 community members, two police members, two employees from the city manager's office and one from the Edmonton Police Commission.

The task force's mandate is to develop recommendations "to address racism, discrimination, excessive use of force, poverty and homelessness in Edmonton," a city press release said.

The city announced the creation of the task force in July following weeks of public hearings on policing and widespread demonstrations across North America against police violence.

Rob Houle, a writer, researcher and activist from the Swan River First Nation, is one of the community members on the task force.

He isn't convinced police should be on the panel.

"I struggle with that a little bit," Houle said in an interview Thursday.

He spoke at length during the public hearings about his own experience in 2005, when Houle says he and his brother were assaulted by police officers.

Houle says the panel should be an opportunity for the public, not the Edmonton Police Service, to consider reforms.

"It's a deeply ingrained problem we have," Houle said. "Some people are seen and given more time and merit as an individual — even though they are carrying forward the same kind of speaking notes and the same kind of rhetoric as the body politic is, which is now the EPS."

Enyinnah Okere, executive director of the value and impact division at EPS, is also on the task force.

"If we're looking at the future of community safety and well-being — the police are part of that. We need to be part of that discussion."

Okere said a major component of the discussion is looking at this system as a whole, noting there are many interconnected parts.

"We need to be talking about a continuum of care and policing is part of that continuum," Okere said. "We just can't be missing as we move forward with this."

Too academic?

Almost everyone on the panel has a high level of post-secondary education, and has sat or sits on a board or council.

The chair, Annette Trimbee, is the president and vice-chancellor of MacEwan University. She's also a member of the Manitoba Métis Federation who developed a now-required Indigenous course.

Irfan Chaudrey is the director of the Office of Human Rights, Diversity and Equity at MacEwan University.

Neither agreed to CBC's request for an interview, and instead deferred to the City of Edmonton to respond.

Nicole Harcus, manager of the city's corporate planning branch, said administration is supporting the task force to draft a terms of reference and would not be coordinating interviews.

"If we're looking at the future of community safety and well-being — the police are part of that. We need to be part of that discussion." - Enyinnah Okere, EPS executive director of value and impact division

Houle feels the task force should include more people with life experience, or long-standing relationships with police and the justice system.

"When you put academics and other people around the table without someone with that lived experience, you tend to lose touch with how things are on the ground," Houle suggested.

He suggested the panel needs more people who are over-policed, entrapped and victims of excessive force.

Jordan Omstead/CBC
Jordan Omstead/CBC

Marni Panas, a diversity and inclusion professional and task force member, said it's important to understand lived experience but doesn't think the panel needs to include more people who have first-hand accounts.

"We know the research — the stories are out there — none of this stuff is new," Panas told CBC News Friday. "It's not about capturing all that evidence, because the evidence is clear. It's been clear for a long time."

It's unlikely the panel will represent all interests in society, said Panas, who also sits on the EPS sexual and gender minority liaison committee.

"I'm not the voice of every trans person or every LGBTQ+ person or white ally, if we're talking about race," Panas said. "But I see people on that table have connections and networks and resources to bring those voices to this table in one way or another."

No subject matter experts on panel, professor says

Ubaka Ogbogu, associate professor of law at the University of Alberta, believes including poverty and homelessness in the panel's mandate is too broad and strays from the original purpose of the public hearing on policing.

"The key question is, what is the core role of the police within the city? What should the police do within the city? What are the alternatives to policing that we can explore?" Ogbogu said in an interview with CBC.

Although the task force represents diverse interests, he said there are gaps.

"There's no single expert on there, on any of these issues really," Ogbogu argued. "No expert on alternatives to policing, no expert on the problems of policing."

He said there should be a participant with in-depth knowledge of different kinds of policing, someone "who studies this for a living."

Insp. Dan Jones, an EPS member for 23 years and task force panelist, said he's been talking about police reform for several years.

"We are the definition of insanity sometimes, we are doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result every year," Jones said in an interview Thursday.

He agrees with the panel's broad mandate to look at links between safety and well-being, crime and health.

"The social determinants of crime are the social determinants of health," Jones said. "We have to stop using the law as a way to address those things, because that's not going to help."

The task force is expected to create a list of recommendations for city council by the end of March.

@natashariebe