Engagement with marginalized communities prompts 'immediate' changes for Edmonton police

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The Edmonton Police Service is making a number of changes to improve the service’s relationships with marginalized communities.

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Included are moves to have all new officers spend time with social agencies, educate the public on their rights when dealing with police, and increase opportunities for communities to engage with police leaders.

The changes follow police Chief Dale McFee’s announcement last fall of launching the EPS Commitment to Action following the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, during an arrest by Minneapolis police officers. Floyd’s death prompted worldwide calls for changes to policing and approaches to public safety.

Chelsea Hawrelak, program manager with the EPS community relations section, said they listened “very intentionally” to city council hearings and community members who spoke of their difficulties with law enforcement and a lack of trust.

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“It was very evident that we needed a restorative approach to that relationship and we needed to take some time to hear the concerns and look at what changes we needed to make,” Hawrelak said.

“Action was very much always at the forefront of this. We didn’t want to have people share their experiences without seeing that change.”

A total of 35 public engagement sessions were held with over 400 individuals, in which EPS spoke with members of Black, Indigenous, and other racialized and underserved communities. Participants were given the opportunity to share their experiences with police and ideas for change.

Hawrelak said EPS hosted some sessions, while different community groups hosted their own sessions with members of EPS present. There were also sessions with no police involvement.

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“We recognize not everybody felt comfortable sharing their feedback directly with EPS and that was also part of why we wanted to create the online space as well,” Hawrelak said.

“One of our principles of engagement was ensuring that we did have many entry points to engage with people because of that recognition of varying comfort levels when engaging with police.”

A number of common themes emerged from the listening sessions.

“We saw a need for more humanization and positive engagement between the police and community,” Hawrelak said. “We heard about both negative and positive interactions with police … (it was) good to learn from the negative experiences what we need to be improving on, but also hear about the positive experiences to know what we’re doing well.”

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EPS heard about challenges navigating the system of support services, as well as a need for education on roles, rights and responsibilities when interacting with police.

Another common topic was trauma of community members as well as the trauma officers experience within their jobs.

Engagement sessions had immediate effect

Hawrelak said EPS made some changes quickly, like small tweaks to training. Other changes require more time.

“The first listening session we held, community members shared that they thought it was very valuable for police officers, new recruits, to have some sort of practicum with social agencies in the community to better understand people’s experiences,” she said.

“So that was something that the chief wanted us to look at implementing immediately.”

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Starting this September, new recruits will be doing four shifts with social agencies around the city.

In response to the need for education, EPS has launched the Know Your Rights campaign to help individuals understand their rights and responsibilities when interacting with police.

Edmonton police also launched three different councils, including the the Nîsohkamâkewin Council to implement policing recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other national reports. There’s also a new Chief’s Community Council that will advise police on implementing changes to policy and procedures, and a leadership committee to find ways to diversify the police service.

Hawrelak said a lot of people appreciated the experience of engaging directly with McFee, so those opportunities will continue. The police service will schedule community listening sessions as a standard practice.

In the fall, EPS will be publishing a full report on all the findings and recommendations while offering a roadmap on what the service will be doing with them, she said.

ajunker@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/JunkerAnna

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