After hosting delegations throughout the day and into the evening, city council decided in the early morning hours of Tuesday it will be replacing the RCMP with its own municipal police service.
At Monday’s regular council meeting, chambers were packed, filled mainly with people opposing a municipal police service. The debate went on late into the night, with a final decision coming at 12:30 a.m.
“To get here today in 2023 just shows the dedication that this council and previous council have had to safety in our community and identifying our community needs,” said Mayor Jackie Clayton.
“It simply is finding the best service model possible for a community that we care deeply about.”
Council voted 8-1 in favour of the transition with coun. Chris Thiessen solely opposed.
“The decisions we make today will be felt,” said Thiessen.
“Maybe not by us, but definitely to councils down the road, probably at the end of the next council term where they’ll be looking at the tax implications and trying to save their own political hides.
“Hopefully, it’s useful for future generations.”
The transition is expected to cost $19 million; the province has dedicated $9.7 million to the city if it were to go ahead with it.
“I understand that it’s not going to be a smooth highway ahead of us; there’s going to be bumps in the road, there’s going to be things that we wished we had considered,” said Coun. Gladys Blackmore.
Coun. Dylan Bressey noted he believes the municipal police service is the correct model to follow but noted residents he spoke with had concerns about safety, money and recruitment.
“This was not a rushed decision,” said City Manager Bob Nicolay, noting the decision took four years to form.
“It’s a highly complex issue in the community, and it’s imperative that the council be properly informed,” Nicolay said, adding that people with the right expertise were used to help council decide.
“There’s been example after example where the RCMP machine simply could not be adapted to community needs,” said Clayton.
Bressey noted online crime reporting as one example.
Blackmore said she wishes the RCMP system were more flexible, noting ideas generated in 2005 are still not implemented.
Coun. Wade Pilat echoed concerns with the RCMP’s policing model.
“I just really feel like the RCMP have lost touch with what’s going on with the next generation and how they want to live, work and play.”
A motion put forward Monday night to postpone the decision was defeated. Pilat, Thiessen and Bressey were looking for a delay.
“If we were to not take this opportunity and the province did decide to announce to establish a grant for municipalities, we’d have to reapply, and I have to say we’d probably be at the bottom of the list of municipalities they would like to work with,” said the mayor.
Coun. Thiessen reminded Clayton that Public Safety and Emergency Services Minister Mike Ellis had said the province was committed to working with municipalities on policing solutions.
“Alberta’s government is committed to working with municipalities and regions across the province to find these local solutions to support policing,” said Ellis at the Feb. 22 announcement where the province offered $9.7 million to the city to help with the transition cost.
Six delegation groups at the meeting
City council heard from six delegations opposed to the transition to a municipal police service: National Police Federation (NPF), Peace Country Progressive Alliance (PCPA), local residents, former RCMP members and a former provincial judge.
Ian Kay, a retired lawyer, noted this wasn’t an election issue at the last election and said a plebiscite would be in order, considering the decision’s significance.
Jeff McGowan, NPF director, said he wants to see more meaningful public engagement and an examination of costs associated with a transition. He noted the provincial budget released last Tuesday (Feb. 28) did not have any funds allocated to a provincial police service, which has led him to believe there is no urgency at this time.
Dustin Archibald spoke on behalf of the PCPA, saying the public should have had more time to review the plan.
“An issue of this magnitude must (…) have the utmost scrutiny by members of the public as they will be the ones to shoulder the responsibility long after the members of council have left their position,” said Archibald.
Former RCMP member Keith Redl said he has many issues with the Police Transition Report (PTR) and Police Service Model Review (PSMR), data the city contracted for information for its decision.
He said proper community engagement has not been completed and believes that council is acting against the residents wishes.
“My professional opinion, drawing on a great deal of experience policing in Canada and the Peace Country in particular, you’re being influenced by a biased, misleading and sometimes inaccurate police transition report and police service model.
“The police service as you propose will cost us a great deal more than our current police service, and it will fail if you keep the police model resources you’re proposing.”
He suggested adding more RCMP members, rather than creating a new police service.
“It would be cheaper,” he said.
James Watson, a Grande Prairie resident of 53 years, former criminal defence lawyer and provincial court judge, spoke to council in support of the RCMP.
“I was in an adversarial position with the RCMP, no doubt about it,” said Watson.
“Despite that, I’m here in favour of the RCMP.
“The RCMP has, without fail, represented this community fairly and efficiently, according to the highest standards.”
Steve Oster, NPF labour relations officer, said the training component of the city’s transition is not adequate. He adds there will also be recruitment challenges.
He noted that since the province is still considering a provincial police service, it would impact the success of recruitment and retention in the city if it were to go ahead.
Mayor Jackie Clayton said currently city firefighters have a one per cent attrition with no recruitment concerns, and believes it would be the same for a municipal police service.
Alberta RCMP Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki spoke to council along with Lee Brachmann, Grande Prairie RCMP officer-in-charge.
Zablocki says RCMP attrition is four per cent.
Coun. Blackmore said the movement and retention of RCMP officers in Grande Prairie is a “failing of the RCMP model.”
She noted that sending officers from other communities to Grande Prairie is part of the problem.
“I would say shame on our recruiting officers if, you know, hundreds of people here in Grande Prairie want to be police officers and we’ve missed them,” said McGowan.
Chris Manuel, city executive director of Emergency Services, said municipalities that have police services are not only attracting new recruits but members from other police services including the RCMP.
He noted North Bay, Ont. had recently hired nine officers, of which three were new recruits, and six came from other detachments including the RCMP.
Blackmore asked Zablocki if there is a way to encourage RCMP commanders remain in the city longer, noting that in the last 12 years the division has seen nine commanding officers.
“We recognize the importance of having consistency … particularly in the leadership role and shortly after I came we did make a commitment to extend the tenure of commanding officers,” said Zablocki.
As public controversy mounted, the PCPA created a template letter for residents to send to city councillors. They claim that more than 350 letters were received by city council.
Coun. Grant Berg questioned if Archibald believed one of the statements in the letter, which read that a municipal police service “can lead to an increase in police brutality, racial profiling, and other forms of misconduct.”
Archibald said the statement was based on facts, noting systematic racism as an issue nationally.
The city will now seek approval from Minister Ellis to change policing models and form a municipal police service.
Mayor Clayton said a letter will be sent to the minister on Tuesday.
The city will need to draft a bylaw to create a police commission as well as notify the federal government of its intent to transition away from the RCMP.
“March 31 was the deadline for the contract agreement renewal date,” said Clayton.
“The other point being that there needs to be time for the minister to actually sign the agreement to approve us to transition, and schedules are extremely busy.
“The offer is there from the provincial government, and council made a decision that now was the best time for us.”
Once a police commission is established, the city will begin a national search for a police chief.
Clayton has previously stated her desire to start with a smaller police commission.
She said council will be encouraging people to apply to ensure diverse voices are heard in the commission.
What led to the decision?
In 2021, the city PSMR was completed for $150,000, which then led to city council’s decision to create the $250,000 PTR.
Community engagement was used to create the PTR, and included interviews with approximately 60 stakeholders, an online survey which received 758 responses and two open houses with 88 attendees.
City council met in the morning before the decision as Committee of the Whole to discuss budget concerns with the cost of the transition.
City council had been presented with the PTR Feb. 21, which outlined a detailed plan for switching from the current RCMP contract policing model. The following day (Feb. 22), the province announced it would give the city $9.7 million to help cover the $19 million predicted in transition costs.
The provincial budget tags $5.4 million in 2023/2024 and $4.3 million in 2024/2025 for the city.
“I recognize that the City of Grande Prairie has requested greater financial assistance from that contained in Budget 2023; I would like to assure you that the Government of Alberta is fully committed and prepared to work with municipal officials to assist in supporting any future funding assistance requirements for the fiscal year 2025/26 and beyond,” wrote Minister Ellis in a letter to the mayor.
Clayton noted other funding options available to fund the transition, including city reserves, which would ensure no future impact on residents’ property taxes.
The transition cost includes hiring staff, recruitment, training, equipment, and even down to office supplies, said Manuel.
“It is important to note that those costs do not rely on any additional revenue outside of what the city ordinarily receives or any additional automated traffic enforcement revenue,” he said.
City Manager Nicolay said, “there are some areas where we’re going to see increased costs, and there’s some areas where we’re going to see a decrease in costs.”
“The primary driver here was to get a more community sensitive, more community accountable police service into Grande Prairie,” he said.
Mayor Clayton said the upcoming provincial election should not affect the funding.
“We are optimistic that whichever party is in government that they will support our community and our needs for safety,” she said.
Coun. Thiessen asked city administration about ramifications if the city were to back out at a later date.
“I would never say that a decision is final, but there are consequences to reversing and as we’ve seen play out in other communities,” said Manuel.
“It’s been stated several times here today that 80 per cent of Canadians are primarily policed by a municipal regional or provincial police service other than the RCMP,” he said.
The city will be the first Alberta community since 1956 to transition from the RCMP to a municipal police service.
By Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Mar 07, 2023