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‘Concerned and perplexed’: Alberta police force move catches unions off guard

CALGARY — The union representing Alberta’s sheriffs says it was not consulted about a plan announced this week to have a new police service handle much of the work they currently do.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees says it was surprised by a bill the United Conservative government introduced Wednesday to create an independent police force.

“Sheriffs want to know that their rights will be protected and that they will be properly supported in their duties,” Bobby-Joe Borodey, the union’s vice-president, said in a news release Thursday.

“All of our law-enforcement members are passionate about their work and keeping Albertans safe. They deserve to be treated with respect, and that means they need to be given reassurances.” 

Borodey said that includes knowing whether their duties will change, if they’ll be paid appropriately and how much more training they would need. 

Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis told a news conference Wednesday that the new police force would work alongside existing municipal and First Nations police forces and the RCMP.

Ellis said peace officers with the Alberta Sheriffs have fewer powers than full-fledged police officers but have been increasingly doing the same work, and that it naturally follows they should operate under similar oversight and legislation.

Ellis was adamant no decision has been made on replacing the Alberta RCMP. 

Nonetheless, the National Police Federation, which represents 20,000 Mounties, said it was “deeply concerned and perplexed” that Alberta was laying the groundwork for a new independent police agency. 

“Alberta has significant policing infrastructure in place through the Alberta RCMP, yet the government has not increased funding for our members to keep pace with population growth and evolving crime in the province,” federation president Brian Sauvé said in a news release. 

“For several years, our members in Alberta have been caught in the middle of a highly politicized debate on policing. 

“Rather than legislation, bureaucracy and more government spending to explore alternative policing services, it’s time to invest in the highly trained, professional provincial policing service accountable to Albertans: the Alberta RCMP.” 

The Alberta RCMP said it needs more time before it comments. Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld, speaking as president of the Alberta Association of Chiefs of Police, said the association is also looking forward to hearing more details.

The president of Alberta Municipalities said he’s looking forward to learning more about how the plan will work, but is disappointed there were no consultations with his group’s members.

“We’d like to know how much it’s going to cost. Where is the funding coming from? When’s it going to be implemented?” asked Wetaskiwin Mayor Tyler Gandam.

“We’ve got a ton of questions and I think a lot of them could have been answered had they consulted municipalities.”

Gandam said an overwhelming number of the municipalities were supportive of keeping the RCMP in place and it’s unclear how the new agency will help improve public safety.

“I don’t think changing the uniform or the badge or the sign on the door necessarily increases community safety,” he said.

Gandam said many police calls involve cases of mental health and addictions, so perhaps the money could be better spent on social workers, counsellors and other help. 

“I would rather have seen an investment in something like that.”

Ellis said there is no timeline for the new force to be created. 

Alberta’s sheriffs already handle duties such as court security and commercial vehicle inspection.

They have recently seen that work expanded to include handling fugitive apprehension, impaired driving and distracted driving cases, and helping police keep order in downtown Edmonton and Calgary.

Alberta’s United Conservative government has been working for years on revamping policing to better respond to crime, particularly in the downtowns of Edmonton and Calgary and rural areas.

Under former premier Jason Kenney and current Premier Danielle Smith, the UCP studied and long promoted replacing the RCMP with a provincewide police force. 

However, the idea faced opposition — including from municipalities — over concerns about cost, implementation and staffing, while public opinion polls consistently suggested a majority of Albertans did not support a new provincewide force.

For the last year or so, Smith’s government has been silent on dumping the RCMP.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 14, 2024. 

— with files from Bill Graveland. 

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press


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