Grande Prairie mulls over decision to replace RCMP
March 2, 2023 By Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Mar. 2, 2023, Grande Prairie, Alta. – Grande Prairie city council is currently mulling over what one councillor describes as the “biggest decision” council may ever make.
Last Tuesday at a Committee of the Whole meeting, city councillors reviewed the Policing Transition Report (PTR) which, if adopted, would see the city replacing the RCMP with its own municipal police service.
“This decision is one of the most important decisions that this council will ever have to make probably in the history of the city,” said coun. Kevin O’Toole.
A decision is expected March 6 during a regular meeting of council.
“It is administration’s belief that Grande Prairie has reached a size in complexity whereby we have outgrown our current policing model,” said Chris Manuel, city executive director of Emergency Services.
The cost of the transition is expected to be approximately $19 million; the city has lobbied the province for funding.
Last Wednesday (Feb. 22), a day after the plan was released, the province announced if city council moves forward with its own municipal police service it would provide $9.7 million towards the transition cost.
In 2021, the city completed a $150,000 Police Service Model Review (PSMR). The review provided a look at how policing currently works as well as what future policing could look like in the city.
The review looked at scenarios that included a provincial police force, the city continuing to use the RCMP as contract police as well as its own municipal police service.
“If the province were to put in a provincial police force, that would take away the opportunity for the municipality to have a contract with the RCMP, which in turn would leave us limited options,” Grande Prairie Mayor Jackie Clayton told the News in September.
“The police and expenditures in the city are the most expensive annual operating expense and consist of approximately 22 per cent of our operating budget,” said Manuel.
After receiving the PSMR in September, city council decided to create the highly detailed PTR to address the transition from RCMP policing to a municipal police service.
The $250,000 report landed last Tuesday (Feb 21).
It details a five-year transition plan, which, if approved, would see the city begin hiring leadership positions this year and having officers as early as next year.
Provincial Public Safety and Emergency Services Minister Mike Ellis would then have to approve the new model.
The minister said the province is dedicated to helping municipalities move forward with such initiatives.
“Alberta’s government is committed to working with municipalities and regions across the province to find these local solutions to support policing,” said Ellis.
Grande Prairie would need a bylaw to create a police commission that could include three to 12 members including up to two city councillors or employees.
Though member selection would be made by city council, 40 per cent of the commission would be provincially appointed.
Once a police commission is in place, its first tasks will be to establish a public complaint officer and hire a police chief and an executive director.
It will take about four months to hire a police chief by doing a national third-party search, said Chad Lins, who presented the transition plan on behalf of MNP, its creator.
The city would then have the first 41 municipal officers deployed in 2024.
Municipal and RCMP members would share the workload during the transition.
“Every year, you have the ability in your municipal policing agreement to tell the RCMP how many police officers you would like, and that’s the mechanism in which we withdraw that number down while you (the city) add your municipal police officers,” said Lins.
The increase in municipal enforcement would continue, with approximately 100 officers expected to be in place here by 2027.
“Our role here was really to create the plan if you should choose to go down that path,” Lins told council.
“The plan addresses many, if not all, of the elements that folks have brought up they are concerned about, including elements around governance.”
In September, Manuel said the vision of a municipal police service would include outreach workers and mental health therapists.
Last week, coun. Grant Berg asked how the new police service would include more trauma-informed police practices.
The transition plan includes four Police and Crisis Teams (PACT), said Manuel, which would provide coverage 24 hours every day; but ultimately, he noted that will lie on the chief of police’s deployment model.
Manuel said there are currently two PACT teams in Grande Prairie.
The city will also be working with Alberta Health Services to acquire a psychiatric nurse component.
Additionally, a tactical unit would be made up of members of the police service as a “secondary duty,” explained Manuel.
“It’s having the equipment and the training available (for) when a significant public safety incident arises that we have the tools and the training to respond to it in a more expedient manner,” said Manuel.
He said currently RCMP tactical teams come from Edmonton and can take up to eight hours to respond.
Manuel explained tactical units include officers trained in de-escalation, crisis negotiation and non-lethal means of resolving incidents.
Under the transition plan, training of municipal police officers would be done locally.
Public engagement illustrated what Lins says is a misconception that municipal police officers would be trained to a lesser degree than those in the RCMP.
Manuel says when RCMP officers are trained, they receive training as a group, focusing on federal law, before being deployed to communities across Canada.
A municipal police officer will be trained to the provincial policing standards and have a greater understanding of the municipal law, he said.
Local training would also be able to include more cultural diversity inclusion specific to the city, Manuel added.
Training would be provided in the city, and Manuel said work to partner with existing post-secondary institutions delivering training for multiple police agencies in Alberta has already begun.
The city has stated there will be many benefits to a transition including increased local oversight; it says officer recruitment will improve along with retention and an increased control over policing costs as well as an enhanced public safety infrastructure are other advantages.
A public online survey revealed that city residents like how visible the RCMP’s presence is here and that they believe the RCMP has a good reputation.
Survey respondents also said they want more community involvement with police, more capacity to handle people in crisis due to mental health, addictions and homelessness issues, as well as more property crime follow-up.
The National Police Federation (NPF) represents approximately 20,000 RCMP officers and criticized the city for not circulating the plan among its residents for a longer period.
“Surprisingly, the council signalled that it already intends to vote in favour of a transition even though the transition plan hasn’t been circulated among Grande Prairie residents,” said Brian Sauve, NPF president. He said just over one per cent of the Grande Prairie population has been consulted about the transition.
Lins said community engagement used to create the report included interviews with approximately 60 stakeholders, an online survey which received 758 responses and two open houses with 88 attendees.
Coun. Dylan Bressey called the community engagement the “biggest public engagement we’ve had in city history.”
Still, Sauve says more time is needed.
“There is actually no mechanism currently in place for residents to properly review, assess, and question their municipal government on the details contained in this 100+ page report in just under two weeks.”
He referred to Surrey, B.C. where a low-cost transition was promised but it came with a significant property tax increase.
“The reality is that taxpayers end up shouldering a significantly higher amount for both startup and future annual operating costs,” said Sauve.
“In 2019, the City of Red Deer decided not to transition to a municipal police service due to the high cost to its taxpayers and lack of improvement on public safety.”
Grande Prairie coun. Mike O’Connor shared his concern of potential cost increases for residents, noting the recent decision in Surrey to revert to the RCMP.
Manuel noted policing models and legislation are different in Alberta. Grande Prairie’s decision to perform a police services review and a subsequent transition report have “better-informed” council of what will come.
“It’s a little bit more of a unique situation in Surrey,” said Mayor Clayton. “It’s become a little bit of a political issue, whereas we wanted to have as much information in front of us prior to making our decision.”
For now, city residents are waiting on council’s decision.
“This isn’t an easy decision for council because we have such high respect for the RCMP,” said coun. Wendy Bosch.
– Town & Country News
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