Vikki Wiercinski

Should Alberta Have Its Own Police Force?

Drew Barnes, the independent MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat, says yes. 

One of the key recommendations of the provincial government’s Fair Deal Panel was the creation of a provincial police force. I was proud to serve on this panel, and I can tell you that some of the most impassioned testimony we received from the public related directly to this issue.

The debate over creating a provincial police force in Alberta dates back decades. Frequently lost in the discussion, however, is the fact that the RCMP is not the primary police service for the majority of Albertans. About 58 per cent of Albertans are currently served by one of seven municipal police services. For the citizens of Calgary, Edmonton, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, the reason is obvious. The terms of the provincial Municipal Policing Assistance Grant create a clear financial incentive to go municipal. These cities can put more boots on the beat with lower administrative costs and less bureaucracy than is currently possible by contracting with the RCMP.

My conversations with constituents and others who shared their thoughts with the Fair Deal Panel revealed an urban–rural divide on this issue. Many urban Albertans, served by municipal police, want to keep the RCMP. The RCMP is least popular among rural residents. This is because the RCMP, for all of its historical significance, remains the relic of a bygone era. Like the North-West Mounted Police of yesteryear, the RCMP’s top priority in rural regions continues to be keeping the peace. It has done little to adapt to modern economic realities or to address key rural concerns, particularly property crime. For far too many rural Albertans, police response times for emergencies are measured in hours, and officers won’t even attend or investigate theft complaints. Property crime simply isn’t a priority, even during a rural crime wave.

At the same time, the RCMP have made numerous high-profile mistakes. From the High River gun grab during the 2013 floods, to the misguided charges laid and then dropped against rural homeowner Eddie Maurice, the RCMP has demonstrated utter disregard for the property rights of rural Albertans. You can’t fault folks for growing ever more frustrated with a service that disregards their concerns.

Urban police forces have lately made great strides in public engagement, hiring officers that understand and connect with local cultural communities. The same can’t be said of the RCMP in rural Alberta. Too often, the officers dispatched to rural RCMP detachments have little to no understanding of the communities they serve. Neither do their administrative and political overlords thousands of kilometres away.

Regardless of where we live, we can surely all agree that all Albertans deserve a local police force we can count on, a force that responds to our concerns and respects us enough to be accountable to us. Right now that’s not what rural Albertans are getting. We can easily resolve this through the creation of a provincial police force.

Brian Sauvé, the National Police Federation president, says no.

Albertans deserve the highest standard and quality of policing. The Alberta RCMP is proud to be the police service of choice in our province since 1932, and our members have deep personal, family and social connections in the communities they serve. A transition to an Alberta provincial police service would create real risks to ongoing policing and public safety improvements, including successful crime-reduction strategies in rural and remote communities. It would also cost Albertans hundreds of millions of dollars more for fewer fully trained officers.

The provincial government will decide about the future of the RCMP in Alberta this spring, but why would it even consider a transition when this isn’t a priority for Albertans? Polling results from the Fair Deal Panel show only 35 per cent support for the proposed change. A Pollara Strategic Insights survey of Albertans in fall 2021 found 84 per cent want to keep the RCMP and only 9 per cent support a transition.

In late 2020 the government paid PricewaterhouseCoopers $2-million to study a potential transition. PwC’s final report outlined an array of options at exorbitant costs to Alberta taxpayers. It also noted that thorough public consultation hasn’t been conducted, that First Nations haven’t been consulted and—due to the complexity of policing services in Alberta—not all costs can be estimated. A true feasibility study would be needed to fully understand the impacts and costs.

Initial estimates for the transition are over $550-million, but a review of actual costs in other jurisdictions shows the amount could easily double or triple that. This would be in addition to the province losing roughly $188-million annually that the federal government currently contributes to cover RCMP policing costs. A key component of the RCMP’s service delivery model is the ability to efficiently pool resources across provincial and municipal jurisdictions, such as happened during the 2022 Coutts border blockade. Replacing the Alberta RCMP with a provincial service means local taxpayers would be on the hook for the full cost of creating and maintaining these resources from scratch.

Citizens and municipal leaders alike want to keep the Alberta RCMP. While some have expressed concerns about policing and public safety in their communities, most feel that the RCMP and the provincial government must continue to work together to further enhance and strengthen services to tackle public safety priorities, such as rural crime and response times, and to address delays and procedural issues within the provincial justice system.

We believe the government should listen to citizens and invest in improving the Alberta RCMP rather than wasting hundreds of millions for what would ultimately be fewer fully trained police officers, especially in rural and remote communities. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Drew Barnes responds to Brian Sauvé

The discussion surrounding the creation of an Alberta provincial police force dates back decades, and while the issue can provoke passions on both sides, it is an important debate that must take place both inside and outside the Legislature before any major changes would be adopted.

As the sole certified bargaining agent for nearly 20,000 RCMP members across Canada, the National Police Federation has a vested interest in maintaining the RCMP’s current position in Alberta. I certainly respect the role the union plays in representing its members. However, my role as an elected representative differs significantly, as my job is to put the thoughts and concerns of Albertans, particularly my constituents, first.

In response to Brian Sauvé’s position, allow me to wholeheartedly agree with his opening statement: “Albertans deserve the highest standard and quality of policing.”

The RCMP has a long and storied role in serving Albertans. But to claim that the RCMP provides a superior service to the tribal and municipal police forces currently serving 58 per cent of Albertans would be dismissive and, frankly, inaccurate. In fact, when it comes to responding to local priorities and being accountable to local residents, municipal and tribal forces have a far superior record.

I include tribal police in this argument because at least three First Nations communities in Alberta operate their own police services separate from the RCMP. I won’t presume to speak for these communities on their reasons for doing so, other than to say that given the long and often contentious relationship between First Nations and the federal government, it’s important that these communities have this choice.

I should also point out that this choice has been denied to 100 per cent of other rural Albertans. Under current provincial legislation, only urban municipalities with populations over 5,000 may opt to create their own police forces. All rural municipalities, regardless of population or costs, are forced to contract with the RCMP.

Despite rural frustration, the RCMP has not kept pace with urban police in tackling organized crime.

In recent years, urban police forces have done an admirable job infiltrating and disrupting organized crime. In fact, they have enjoyed so much success that many of these criminals have shifted their operations to the suburbs and rural areas, resulting in a significant wave of theft and other property crimes. Despite an outpouring of rural frustration, the RCMP has not kept pace with urban police forces in tackling these operations.

When it comes to the cost arguments, I am afraid Mr. Sauvé and I fundamentally disagree. The fact is the RCMP’s costs per member—for training, salary, equipment and administration—are higher than the costs currently being paid by Alberta’s municipal police forces. Significant per-officer savings can be realized through the creation of a provincial police force.

Does this mean that creating a provincial police force will automatically save taxpayers money in the short term? It could, but I don’t think it necessarily should. I think it’s fair to say that rural policing done right costs more than urban policing, and there’s no question rural Albertans are demanding a higher level of service than they currently receive from the RCMP. That means we need more boots on the ground. Even if a provincial police force were to have a lower per-officer cost, I think we can and should expect higher overall costs in the short term. In the long term those costs would taper off, as illustrated by the PwC report Mr. Sauvé cited.

The final issue raised by Mr. Sauvé that I must challenge is the notion that the RCMP is superior when it comes to pooling resources across jurisdictional lines. There is no question in my mind that a provincial police force, less burdened by bureaucracy and administration, could accomplish this better than the RCMP. Furthermore, there is no reason why local taxpayers would be on the hook for such a response. That’s not how provincial police forces work.

When it comes to creating a provincial police force, Albertans do not have to reinvent the wheel. Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador all have their own provincial forces. We can take the best of what works for them, and we can do it in a way that puts Albertans first. This is the kind of due diligence that Albertans rightly expect.

Any transition of this significance should proceed with a clear road map and deadlines in place. There’s no question that making the change from the RCMP to a provincial police force would require some heavy lifting. Albertans have never been afraid of a little work, and when you’ve got a job to do, the best time to start is now. It’s time.

Brian Sauvé responds to Drew Barnes

Drew Barnes’s argument for the creation of a provincial police force is unfortunately based on political rhetoric and not on data, facts or what Albertans really want. Alberta RCMP members deliver incredibly high value to citizens across the province, the vast majority of whom are satisfied with RCMP policing. We know this because numerous waves of independent public surveys through Pollara Strategic Insights have consistently shown that the vast majority of Albertans support and want to keep the RCMP in the province. National Police Federation board directors and staff also spent three months (from January to March of this year) travelling the province, hearing from more than 1,000 Albertans—including First Nations and Indigenous communities—on their views about policing, which also reinforced a high level of support for the RCMP.

Despite suggestions of an urban–rural divide on the RCMP, the truth is Albertans are unified in their support for the RCMP. The same Pollara surveys found highest support in RCMP-served communities in the Edmonton area at 86 per cent, followed closely by rural northern communities at 85 per cent. Support also remains high for the RCMP in central and southern Alberta communities, at 81 per cent and 71 per cent respectively. These surveys also show that Albertans have among the highest support for the RCMP in the country, at 80 per cent, topping support from Quebecers for their provincial police, the Sûreté du Québec (73 per cent), and from Ontarians for the Ontario Provincial Police (67 per cent).

Another argument we hear frequently is that the Alberta RCMP is beholden to Ottawa, but this is simply not true. The RCMP is contracted as Alberta’s provincial police service through the Provincial Police Services Agreement, Article 6 of which explicitly identifies Alberta’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice as responsible for setting the priorities, agenda and direction of the Alberta RCMP. The agreement goes even further, in Article 6.4, to state that, “Nothing in this agreement will be interpreted as limiting in any way the jurisdiction of Alberta in respect to the administration of justice and law enforcement in the Province.”

In plain language, the Alberta government sets the agenda and the priorities for the RCMP in the province. For rural communities, this means any issues someone might have with the direction of policing in Alberta are not caused by “Ottawa,” but rather by Alberta’s own provincial representatives.

Data shows the Alberta RCMP has made significant strides towards reducing rural crime.

The RCMP’s priority in rural communities—as determined by Alberta’s Minister of Justice—is to protect human life and property, and the Alberta RCMP has in fact made significant strides on reducing rural crime. The data from the RCMP is clear, showing a 10 per cent reduction in rural crime in Alberta in 2020 alone, alongside a 17 per cent decrease in break and enters and a 22 per cent decrease in thefts under $5,000, representative of 21,285 fewer Criminal Code offences. RCMP members are delivering on the issues that matter when Albertans’ priorities are funded appropriately.

Another point of concern in rural communities is police response times. The Alberta RCMP operates out of 113 detachments and prioritizes calls posing an immediate or potential threat to life, with an average response time of 20 minutes or better. The Alberta government’s own transition report indicates that a provincial police force would use these same detachments—with fewer fully trained officers ready to respond—so it’s difficult to see how this would improve service. We believe response times could be improved by hiring more RCMP officers, which would cost far less than a transition to a new provincial police service.

Policing is evolving, as is the RCMP. The hundreds of millions of dollars that would be spent on a police transition would better serve Albertans if it were instead invested in the existing RCMP and on the rural policing priorities Albertans really care about: reducing response times, increasing police resources and fighting the opioids crisis. Arguments in favour of a transition consistently fail to identify how a provincial police force would accomplish any of these priorities or do better than the Alberta RCMP. In fact, the transition report commissioned by the province itself is clear that the overall approach to developing a provincial police service would be to simply copy what the RCMP is already doing, while spending hundreds of millions of dollars more per year.

Alberta’s RCMP members are Albertans. In arguing for a new provincial police service, the government of Alberta is showing it doesn’t listen to or care about what their constituents really want. And even worse, it doesn’t care that it would be putting at risk hard-fought gains in improving rural policing and reducing rural crime.

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