“Police work is more than taking guns off the street and putting bad guys behind bars,” says Chief Dale McFee. “There’s a whole other side to our job where success is measured in the number of people we divert away from the criminal justice system toward services like housing, mental health and addictions.”
A first of its kind in Canada, the new Community Safety and Well-being Bureau seeks to move vulnerable citizens away from the criminal justice system and towards community agencies that can provide the necessary support– everything from addictions counselling and housing to employment, basic life skills and healthcare. It recognizes that the traditional police model of arresting an individual or delivering a fine usually doesn’t address any of the underlying challenges that person is facing. In police terms, this approach is called “off-ramping”, because it allows individuals to exit off a pathway that is seemingly destined for a judge or criminal record, and towards an approach that enables an individual to work with community agencies and services to improve their quality of life.
“Our purpose is to understand the root cause of the issues and the barriers facing the individual and get them the supports necessary to address and resolve these issues”, says Acting Superintendent Kellie Morgan. “Something is causing these citizens to generate calls for police intervention. We want to understand what that is and help direct and support them in accessing the appropriate resources to address their needs.”
There is another benefit to having an entire Bureau dedicated to helping individuals break their cycle of disruptive behaviour. Because one person can be responsible for many calls for service to police, finding a solution that meets their long-term needs ultimately reduces the number of times they will require police response. This, in turn, frees up police to provide service to other citizens and address larger issues causing crime, victimization, and disorder.
“Our work is helping someone directly improve their quality of life”, says Sergeant Shawn Ottenbreit, who is part of the Bureau’s new Human-centred Engagement and Liaison Partnership Unit. “Being part of the solution and knowing that our work is making a difference – that’s rewarding.”
Although the Community Safety and Well-being Bureau is relatively new, “social policing” has been underway at the Edmonton Police Service for the past several years. Programs such as the Heavy Users of Service (HUoS) and Police and Crisis Team (PACT) have been offered in partnership with other providers, like Boyle Street Community Services and Alberta Health Services. Their successes solidified the need for a Bureau, which is now looking to partner with more agencies to help an even broader range of citizens.
“The role of policing has evolved over the years, that’s what we mean when we say, ‘balance support with enforcement’,” says Chief McFee. “As first responders, we play a vital role in connecting people with the services they need while also holding offenders that disrupt public safety and cause harm accountable.”