Policing the pandemic: Alberta law enforcement opts for educational approach over tickets, fines

·4 min read

Despite a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in Edmonton and recent restrictions on social gatherings, Edmonton police have not issued any tickets under the Public Health Act since June 12.

Between April 8 and May 13, Edmonton police issued 76 tickets, followed by another 14 between May 14 and June 12 and none since that time for a total of 90.

Edmonton Police Service spokesperson Scott Pattison said the tickets were written for improper physical distancing and for those who defied social gathering restrictions.

During that same time, Edmonton enforcement officers have written four tickets for people not wearing mandatory face masks. More than 2,000 verbal warnings have been issued.

"Education remains the primary approach for public compliance at this time," Pattison said.

Police chief Dale McFee said EPS takes direction on enforcement from the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

"We'll respond to what we're asked to do," McFee told CBC News. "We've got a great relationship working with the chief medical health officer to get this right."

Scott Neufeld/CBC
Scott Neufeld/CBC

McFee said EPS prefers to rely on education and awareness rather than writing tickets or issuing fines.

In a statement to CBC, Alberta Health said it doesn't tell police how to enforce public health restrictions.

"We know that Edmontonians and Calgarians care about their communities and want to do the right thing, Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan told CBC News in an email. "Alberta Health does not dictate approaches to law enforcement."

But McMillan said the provincial government is trying to work in cooperation with AHS and all law enforcement agencies whenever possible to enforce legal orders in place for COVID-19, stressing that day-to-day policing decisions are made independently.

"The first focus is generally on public education and working with owners/operators before moving to enforcement action," McMillan continued. "Any police agency is able to enforce the Public Health Act in accordance with the law.

A tale of two cities

The Edmonton approach is in sharp contrast to the tone set this week by Winnipeg police.

A CBC analysis of the current active cases per 100,000 population shows a rate of 186 in the Edmonton zone and 430 in the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

On Wednesday, Winnipeg police announced they would step up enforcement of COVID-19-related public health orders immediately, with a plan to take particular aim at house parties and other big gatherings.

"Our job is making sure people understand how serious this is and we are going to do that through fines," Winnipeg Police Service Const. Rob Carver said at a Wednesday morning news conference.

It's an approach that was endorsed by the Manitoba premier and the province's chief medical officer of health who have often been quoted as saying that enforcement of the COVID-19 protocols is a key part of their strategy to stamp down the surge in cases.

Google and Tyson Koschik/CBC
Google and Tyson Koschik/CBC

But Edmonton's police chief is comfortable with the approach being taken locally.

"I think so far it's worked reasonably well for those that are breaking the rules," McFee said. "Generally led by Public Health that it's through education to tell people that it's not appropriate and in some cases be sent on their way."

McFee said he doesn't have much faith fines are the most effective way to ensure compliance.

"We get a lot of fines handed out in the criminal justice system. I'm not sure they've deterred much activity in a lot of areas," he said.

Enforcing quarantine orders

Alberta RCMP have taken a similar approach to enforcing pandemic bylaws.

Between May 15 and November 4, 22 tickets or summons were issued province-wide by the RCMP for alleged violations under the Alberta Public Health Act or the Federal Quarantine Act.

The reasons for the tickets or the summons varied from failing to self-isolate, disregarding the quarantine act and non-compliance with physical distancing requirements.

An RCMP spokesperson said the alleged offences occurred all over the province, including Banff, Coutts, Lake Louise, Fort McMurray, Bassano, Leduc and Cardston.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) requires travellers from outside the country to quarantine for 14 days.

"PHAC works with the RCMP and provincial law enforcement agencies to verify compliance," spokesperson Kathleen Marriner wrote in an email. "In cases where the screening officers confirm or suspect non-compliance or they are unable to establish contact with the traveller after multiple attempts, PHAC engages local law enforcement."

The spokesperson said that since March 25, police agencies in Alberta have conducted 2,020 follow-up visits with returning travellers. A total of ten tickets have been written with fines ranging between $1,000 and $1,200. In addition, two summons and three warnings have been written along with 19 verbal warnings.

Only one of those tickets was written by the Edmonton Police Service to a returning traveller in the spring.

Officers use a low-key approach. An EPS spokesperson said the officer conducting compliance checks goes to the residence in full uniform in an unmarked vehicle. If there's no answer, the officer does not conduct surveillance.

"Again, we continue to advocate towards awareness and education," spokesperson Patrycja Mokrzan said.