Policing, Community Wellbeing, and Public Safety

In May 2020, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin ignited protests against the long-standing and far-reaching issues of racism in policing and the resulting police brutality against people of colour. A popular response to this has been a call to defund or disband the police and redirect that funding to support for mental health, addiction, and trauma. 

In Edmonton these protests sparked a discussion about the strained relationship between the police and marginalized populations in the city, including Black, Indigenous, and communities of colour. In response, City Council held public hearings over several days and then created a Community Wellbeing and Safety Taskforce which was asked to report on racism in policing and return recommendations to make Edmonton ‘Safer for All’. 

Policing, community wellbeing, and public safety are incredibly complex. They are also closely intertwined. It takes a socially innovative approach to resolve the challenges they present. There are examples of different creative approaches from around the world including this case study from the City of Baltimore, but we also have at least one local example that I was lucky enough to be involved in.

As the former project manager for the Recover urban wellness initiative at the City of Edmonton, I have experienced firsthand the positive impact felt by communities when we create people-centred solutions. During this work, we listened to and worked directly with people living in Edmonton’s downtown core who are facing complex challenges. We built collaborative and iterative approaches to address the issues impacting them most by trying out ideas, seeking feedback from those most affected, and evolving our approaches based on what we heard.

I love reflecting on this work (read more in a previous blog here) because not only did it pilot a socially innovative approach to a complex issue, but it was an example of effective and positive collaboration between sectors and the public. The Edmonton Police Service, social service agencies, vulnerable people, civic leaders, residents, and businesses were all partners who worked together to make this initiative happen. Senior members of the police service even endorsed this people-focused and collaborative project.

Today we are witnessing the community’s relationship with our police crumble. We have seen public disagreements with City Council and a negative response from the Edmonton Police Association to the Community Wellbeing and Safety Taskforce report. When I consider this strained relationship I can’t help thinking about what I learned from my work on Recover and its evolution into today’s Urban WellbeingFramework that relationship building and healing comes from reciprocity, when we see each other as neighbours, peers, and equals, instead of the provider-client relationship typical of service delivery.

In my opinion, the first priority when it comes to community safety for Edmonton’s next City Council is rebuilding trust and forging relationships among the community service sector and the police service while we attempt to reimagine policing to make Edmonton truly safer for all. 

I have tremendous respect for those serving on the Community Wellbeing and Safety Taskforce; their experience, knowledge, and expertise allowed them to effectively navigate an emotionally charged and heavily politicized issue and they took a risk to speak their truth. Their acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of policing and other social service sectors is progress but many of their recommendations about coordination and integration between policing and social services were not new ideas.

I believe what is needed is a new kind of conversation — one that is centred on community wellbeing. Discussions need to focus on healing rather than blame, and unite all of us in our roles in promoting community wellbeing and safety— we all have an important role to play. 

When it comes to the question of police funding, there are no easy answers. We do need stronger accountability and oversight when it comes to annual budget review and approval at the Council level, but I do not believe that the answer is as simple as a straightforward transfer from one broken system to another. We need to examine how systems and sectors intersect and interact to improve wellbeing and guarantee positive outcomes for all Edmontonians, and we need to invest in more community-based resources beyond the social service and policing sector.

Community wellbeing is based on reciprocity and relationships. We need to invest in changing systems to focus on healing the needs of our community. As a City Councillor, this is where I would start.