Keith Gerein: Community safety in Edmonton requires an olive branch, not a stick

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Justice Minister Tyler Shandro must have had quite a week. Maybe it’s the Calgary Flames losing in the Battle of Alberta, or the government taking its lumps in the political arena.

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That may be why he’s appeared combative and explains the radical, unprecedented step of invoking Police Act powers to force Edmonton to come up with a “public safety plan” — despite the fact his government is at least somewhat responsible for the problems he is now demanding the city fix.

Whatever the reason, I guess I should say thanks, minister, that your government is finally taking a serious interest in crime, disorder and community well-being in our city core.

As you have seen, the issues are substantial.

The drug-poisoning crisis is out of control and homelessness has doubled in the last two years, creating spillover effects in the community and transit system. Whether related to this or not, the recent murders of two Chinatown workers have put everyone more on edge. Those deaths were particularly horrific and demand a response, though it bears mentioning that deaths in this area are not exactly a new phenomenon.

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Regardless, residents have reported feeling increasingly uncomfortable using transit or spending time in the core. Business owners are angry that those involved in crime and disorder seem to face few consequences for their actions, while acknowledging many of these perpetrators are victims themselves in other ways. All of this is intolerable.

So yeah, things have become worse of late, but the truth is we’ve been dealing with these problems for a while and begging for some provincial collaboration. It’s great you are finally engaging, though I must say this response isn’t quite what we had in mind.

Though I can’t help but wonder if part of this is an attempt to exploit human crisis for political points. I mean, US Republicans have made a living for decades scaring suburbanites by characterizing inner cities as cesspools of crime, violence and drugs, even though it’s mostly state and federal choices that keep those areas in perpetual poverty.

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It would be a shame to go down the same road in Alberta, minister. So let’s leave politics out of this and focus on policy.

On that front, I should acknowledge a handful of beneficial things your government has done.

This includes funding for a new permanent shelter, creating temporary shelter spaces during the winter and helping with transit costs. I also must recognize the money the UCP has devoted to mental health and addiction treatment — though it’s questionable how much of that has actually flowed to the homeless population.

That said, the list of damaging choices is quite a bit longer.

The repetitive refusal to pay for social housing. The decision to stop funding temporary shelter spaces this spring. The shuttering of supervised consumption sites and limitations imposed on other harm-reduction efforts. The variety of cuts to municipal finances.

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You’ve also squeezed photo radar revenue used to partially fund police, and then taken a larger share of what’s left.

In effect, your governmnent is responsible for a big part of this month and is now demanding someone with fewer resources to clean it up.

Still, that’s exactly what the city has been trying to do.

In your abdication, the city has taken a number of actions, from funding a variety of its own housing projects and more day services at the Bissell Center to enhanced transit security, public washrooms and an extra $300,000 to improve safety in Chinatown.

The city also just this week approved a new community safety strategy, which, though limited, does contain some useful initiatives to try to address root causes of disorder.

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What more would you like Edmonton to do, minister? your letter to Mayor Amarjeet Sohi is strangely bereft of ideas on that question, other than devoting more police officers to Chinatown and the core. Which, by the way, is also being done, albeit belatedly.

Many of us believe your demands warrant further scrutiny, so it’s disappointing that you have so far failed to make yourself available for questions after essentially going to the nuclear option of invoking Police Act powers.

Without the ability to ask, I can only suspect some of this is a political response to a certain dysfunction on city council these days, and if so, I acknowledge you have a point.

In Chinatown especially, I know many residents feel like the council has repeatedly failed to hear their pleas for more safety and security. A handful of councilors have been grossly unhelpful in their attacks on police, including their attempts to exert more control over police activities and funding — even through EPS is supposed to operate at arms’ length from government.

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This interference has likely contributed to EPS feelings that they had to retreat on enforcement activities in the core, and has seemingly backed EPS into a corner of desperation that they feel the need for some counter interference from the province.

As such, your attention to this issue is not unwarranted, minister. It’s the approach that’s lacking.

These issues going on in the city core are incredibly complex, requiring all players with jurisdiction to collaborate on short and long-term solutions.

The path of lectures, overheated political rhetoric, hyper-focus on one aspect — whether that be policing, housing or drugs — and downloading of responsibility gets us nowhere.

In effect, minister, the only stick that should be applied to this issue is an olive branch.

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