Officer wellness, relationship with city council top Edmonton police chief's list of challenges in 2022

Dale McFee has been Edmonton's police chief since 2019. (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)
Dale McFee has been Edmonton's police chief since 2019. (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)

Edmonton's police chief says this year's two biggest struggles have been keeping staff mentally healthy and navigating a frayed relationship with city council.

Dale McFee, who has been Edmonton's police chief for the past four years, brought up both issues during a year-in-review conversation with CBC Edmonton.

McFee said like nurses and paramedics, police officers work in a high-stress environment and are prone to burnout. He said a psychologist brought in by the Edmonton Police Service about a year into the COVID-19 pandemic advised EPS to pay attention to officers' mental health.

"Unrelenting pressure takes a toll on people," McFee said.

The 2023-2026 Proposed Civic Agencies and External Organizations Budgets and Plans cited employee wellness and attrition as an emerging risk for EPS and the head of the police union recently left his position to focus on mental health.

McFee said EPS is paying attention and "trying to get the resources to keep people healthy."

"We hired more staff, we have a psychologist, we got another nurse in relation to that, we've got our reintegration program, so we're trying to get ahead of it," he said.

McFee also spoke about tensions between EPS and city council, which determines most of its funding.

"I don't think I've seen a relationship like this," McFee said.

"I'm not sure we're being heard by some."

City council voted to increase the police budget multiple times this year, but during budget deliberations did not vote to fund the full amount recommended by the Edmonton Police Commission for capital projects.

In a year-end interview with CBC News, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said EPS was allocated its share of resources for capital infrastructure. Sohi said there will always be some tension between agencies like the police and city council because council's job is to ask tough questions and challenge the status quo.

"It is our responsibility on behalf of taxpayers that we demand accountability and value for money from every department in the city, including the agencies that we fund," he said.

Police at more protests

Police have been responding to an increasing number of protests over the past four years.

According to EPS data as of mid-December, police officers had attended 501 protests in 2022 — a 162 per cent increase since 2019.

Protests with Edmonton police presence

McFee said EPS faced criticism over its response to the convoy protests last winter, but officers' acted professionally and kept people safe.

The federal government is preparing for a convoy protest being planned for February and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's national security adviser has said the government learned lessons from last winter's Ottawa protest.

When asked if EPS would change its approach to convoy protests based on lessons learned from the convoy protests, McFee said the service is "still breaking that down."

He said EPS is waiting to see what's in the forthcoming report on the Ottawa People's Commission on the convoy protests and will continue to evaluate its approach.

"We're always looking at ways that we can improve," he said.

Homicides and shootings

As of Dec. 20, police said there had been 29 homicides — 10 fewer than this time last year.

From January until the end of November, there were 143 reported shootings, up slightly from the 141 during the same time period last year.

Of this year's shootings, 75 led to injury and 121 police considered targeted.

Homicides in Edmonton

In May, the killings of Ban Phuc Hoang, 61, and Hung Trang, 64, in Chinatown prompted calls for more security and crime solutions in the area.

Police and city peace officers assigned more people to work in the core and a new operation centre should open next year.

McFee said the reallocation is making a difference, but increased police presence downtown will be needed for a long time, leaving other neighbourhoods under-served.

"It's going to be important that we restaff those other areas as quickly as we possibly can," he said.