In mid-May, two men were killed in Chinatown, near downtown Edmonton. These murders have reignited discussions about safety in the downtown area and on transit. United Conservative Party (UCP) Justice Minister Shandro reacted to the murders by invoking Alberta’s Police Act, publishing a letter addressed to Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, writing that he [Shandro] has the “responsibility under the Police Act to ensure the people of Edmonton receive adequate and effective policing.”
Shandro’s letter lists the various funding initiatives that the province has provided to the city, arguing that the funds granted by the UCP government should be enough to provide for all the needs of Edmonton residents. Yet his list neglects the massive budget cuts that municipalities and other services like health care have faced. In recent budget talks, the UCP refused almost every request the city made for funding, including money to go specifically towards supportive housing. At the same time, crime rates and issues of poverty in Edmonton’s downtown have increased during the pandemic, with rates of homelessness doubling.
Shandro has even played up the funding of a for-profit policing app HealthIM as the solution to crime and policing. The app supposedly directs police to the “best manner of interacting with specific individuals” and “increases efficiency” in reporting.
Now that Shandro has invoked Alberta’s Police Act, he is giving himself as Justice Minister the power to make requests of a municipality in regards to policing. If those requests are not complied with, the minister can appoint police officers, determine their wages (to be paid by the city), and even replace a city’s police. The act even allows the Justice Minister to get creative and “do any other thing necessary to create an adequate and effective police service within the municipality.”
Sohi’s response to Shandro’s letter pointed at underlying issues of crime and safety back to the province, citing the need for better community services and solutions to poverty rather than just policing. Sohi notes that the city even had to find funding for the Bissell Centre, which supports Edmonton’s homeless community, because of a gap “left by the lack of investment from the provincial government.”
Shandro’s letter is a continuation of the UCP’s policy from the last two years. It falls directly in line with their perspective on dealing with crime. During the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, a former UCP justice minister and Shandro’s disgraced predecessor, Kaycee Madu, called defunding the police ”a political gimmick”. Madu also threatened to re-fund police if municipalities did cut police budgets.
Yet safety in downtown Edmonton—along with housing, mental health care, and policing—has been an issue for a very long time. So why is Shandro “taking a stand” now? His call for “adequate” policing, playing off the real fears of residents, is timed conveniently in the midst of police budget discussions in city council. As Councilor Ashley Salvador notes, the only direct control the council has over EPS is through approval of the budget. Shandro’s letter is simply the response of a party, and minister, on shaky ground. Shandro is attempting to flex the party’s power, with the veiled threat of being able to take over the city’s police force if he deems it inadequate. With Jason Kenney’s resignation and Shandro facing a disciplinary hearing from the law society for using his position to obtain personal phone numbers, the UCP is in utter crisis, and Shandro has little to lose. Why wouldn’t they push an opposing city council into submission while they still have the chance?
Sohi’s arguments—demanding addictions and housing support to get at the root of crime and safety—aren’t wrong, but Sohi fails to recognize that the social services needed cannot be properly funded by capitalism in crisis, especially with the UCP at the helm. Time and again, like with the ongoing privatization of health care, the subsidies to the HealthIM app, etc., the UCP have shown that they are only in it for the profits of their corporate friends. The needs of the vulnerable are no priority for the capitalist class. The only way to get these services is to force the ruling class to pay for them.
Community services are vital in addressing and preventing the underlying issues that lead to crime—and are more cost effective than policing in the long run. If people in need can be helped before they become desperate, crime can be prevented. The main problems in Chinatown are poverty, homelessness, and addiction. As one local put it: “In the last two and a half years, we have more and more homeless population, mentally challenged, [people with] addiction and even sometimes criminals.” These issues have been directly exacerbated by the UCP’s austerity, as safe injection sites have closed or been restricted. In fact, Mayor Sohi released a statement which said the accused murderer of the two men in Chinatown “was instructed to attend a treatment facility in Edmonton that was already full and not accepting new patients.”
On June 10, CBC released an article which stated that RCMP officers based outside of Edmonton dropped the accused off in Edmonton’s core, despite the fact that his bail conditions prohibited him from being in the city unsupervised. This fact demonstrates that the police are not a neutral force which exists to protect and serve regular people. They willfully drove a man with strict bail conditions to a place where he had nowhere to stay, where he would be someone else’s problem.
The argument that more cops on the street would help keep Edmonton safe does not hold water. In the majority of cases, police respond after crimes have already been committed, leaving the notion of crime prevention null. On top of that, Edmonton police have killed more people this year than any other police force in Canada. As Fightback wrote in May:
“Since the year 2000, only one EPS officer has been killed in the line of duty. Also worth noting is that the increase in the use of excessive force from the police comes at a time when crime in Edmonton overall has been trending down. From 2018 to 2020 violent crime in the city decreased by eight per cent, the largest decrease in crime in nearly 10 years.”
That arithmetic does not add up in terms of safety—it adds up terms of death.
The unwillingness of the council to fight for the services Edmontonians need was demonstrated when all but one official, Michael Janz, capitulated to Shandro and voted to increase the police budget from the proposed $385 million to $407 million for next year. A number of officials including Sohi, Salvador, Stevenson and Rutherford had campaigned on either freezing or decreasing the police budget, but at the first sign of pressure, they capitulated to Shandro’s demands.
The day after the budget vote, Police Association President, Sgt. Michael Elliot, can be seen on Twitter calling Michael Janz unprofessional. This isn’t even the first time Elliot has tried to intimidate Janz. In February, Janz was cleared of an allegation that he breached code of conduct by Elliot, which stemmed from Janz questioning expenditures of EPS. Other critics of EPS have also faced similar attacks. A letter from the Edmonton police commissioner leaked to the media, claiming that Duncan Kinney, the editor of Progress Report, is under police investigation. No one is willing to explain if or why he’s being investigated. That letter itself stems from an allegation against Councilor Anne Stevenson, that she had been interfering with the supposed investigation. This is the second time Stevenson has come under attack from police. Previously she had been accused of a conflict of interest by the police commission for employing someone “known to be anti-police”. The head of the police association is willing to harass city councilors and even journalists to protect police funding.
What this affair ultimately shows is that politicians do not feel the same pressure that they did in the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Since then, the movement has waned, the protests have become less and less frequent, and reactionary politicians, like those which make up the UCP, are no longer scared of retribution by mass protests. The UCP and police higher up want to forget the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 and reject any notion of defunding the police. Shandro’s demand for more policing can only cause harm. He has callously used the deaths of two community members to push the UCP’s agenda of increasing police funding and has strong-armed Edmonton’s city council away from reallocating police funding.
The function of the police is ultimately to defend current property relations, that is, defend the interests of the ruling class. The police are a tool to hold down the oppressed and exploited in the interests of the rich and powerful. Under capitalism, the ruling class and their representatives insist on a bloated, heavily equipped, and well-funded police force to “solve” crime and poverty through state violence and oppression.
In order to really solve problems of crime and safety, a massive investment and expansion of social programs to tackle poverty, addiction, and homelessness is needed. But this can only happen if the wealth of the ruling class is expropriated and put to use in a way which would benefit the majority. Only the working-class overthrow of capitalism and the democratic control of the economy—and of the wealth of the CEOs, billionaires, and oil barons—can make this much-needed investment in social programs happen.