LAKELAND – The ball has without a doubt started rolling in Alberta when it comes to initiating a provincial police force.
From a provincial leadership stance, the question seems to be more a matter of ‘when’ and ‘how’ an Alberta Provincial Police Service (APPS) will be implemented rather than ‘if’ a provincial force will be established.
“I'm for better enforcement and less crime – bottom line,” Grande Prairie Wapiti MLA Travis Toews told Lakeland This Week.
As Toews runs a leadership campaign to replace former UCP premier Jason Kenney, the potential for a provincial police force did not make the list of promises pitched to UCP membership holders.
However, the former finance minister who left his role in cabinet to run as the next premier of the province did not shy away when asked about the controversial topic of establishing a provincial police force.
“I think an Alberta Police Service could be part of the solution, and here's why,” Toews said, while at a campaign stop in Bonnyville, Alta. “Based on my observations... there is a shroud of bureaucracy and a culture of risk aversion (from) Ottawa top down, that I believe hampers enforcement, and hampers the ability for RCMP members to really deliver the kind of enforcement they might otherwise deliver. That's why I believe an Alberta Police Service could be part of the solution to improving enforcement in Alberta.”
Despite the current government’s forward momentum into researching and preparing for a provincial policing model, not all Albertans are convinced an Alberta police force will improve enforcement or reduce crime.
Municipal leaders from across the province have voiced their concerns over the potential transition from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to that of a provincial police service, with both the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) and Alberta Municipalities formally opposing the transition earlier this year.
Alberta’s reeves and mayors are concerned about ballooning costs of law enforcement services through the transition downloaded onto municipalities, the loss of federal funding for policing services and ongoing challenges in recruiting and retaining law enforcement staff.
“I know a lot of municipalities, at this point in time have great concerns,” acknowledged Toews.
If selected as the leader of the UCP party on Oct. 6, Toews said, “I would commit to working with (municipalities), on bringing them along, selling them the value proposition, and getting to the right solution.”
A new website, Exploring an Alberta Provincial Police Service, launched by the Government of Alberta (GOA) states, “The provincial government has committed that municipalities would pay the same, or less, for an Alberta provincial police compared to what they pay under the RCMP contract policing model.”
Information released by the province states, this financial commitment would be the same for municipalities policed under the Provincial Police Service Agreement, as well as for municipalities that contract the future provincial police's services.
Despite the provincial government’s promises, municipal leaders still have their doubts.
Referencing the three documents prepared by PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC), the RMA points out “the (APPS Current State) report also assumes that the costs for many specialized and administrative services can be reduced through partnerships with the GOA, municipal police, and the private sector, but includes few details about the likelihood of those parties agreeing to such arrangements.”
How will these concerns be addressed? With time, says Toews.
“I don't have a prescriptive timeline – we need to take the time to do it,” he said, adding that it is critical that this transition is done in due course.
"We don't do that hastily (or) do it in a halfcocked manner that ultimately results in enforcement challenges, because right now, there is a real shortage of law enforcement officers. And so, whatever we do, we need to do it with a plan that will enhance enforcement – not undermine it.”
When it comes to staffing a provincial police force, Toews also believes many RCMP members would likely choose to transition to an Alberta Police Service.
He says a provincial training program would also have to be considered, but as Toews points out the Edmonton and Calgary police service already run programs for their own recruits and members.
“I think there could be some real synergies in developing a really robust Alberta Police Service. But those would have to be details that we would have to find good solid solutions around before we move forward,” added Toews.
RCMP or APPS, a municipality’s choice
Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul MLA David Hanson remains steadfast in his support for the RCMP – as do many of the reeves and mayors in his riding.
While Hanson does not oppose the establishment of a provincial police force, he does support municipalities’ right to choose, as crime and rural crime remains an ongoing concern for many jurisdictions.
"I'm a big supporter of the RCMP, always have been, but I do understand the frustration that a lot of people, especially in rural Alberta, feel when it comes to rural crime, but I don't think (the blame) can be handed to the RCMP. I think it's more of a problem with our courts,” Hanson told Lakeland This Week.
Whether it is a member of RCMP or a municipal police force, Hanson says the more people, eyes and boots that are on the ground, the better it will be for all residents.
Hanson’s views on the policing matter might not entirely align with his fellow UCP MLAs, but Hanson says he is guided by the needs of his constituents.
“I've never had a problem voicing my concerns with caucus members,” Hanson said.
“There are some communities in Alberta that already have their own police force, Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, to name three. And so those communities have decided to have their own forces and work in conjunction with the RCMP. So, it's something that's already happening. Not on the provincial level, but on local municipal levels.”
Hanson noted that over the last few years he has attended many rural crime town halls and it has informed his understanding of the frustration residents feel.
“They're just anxious for any solution that's going to help,” he said.
“I think (a provincial police force) is still being pursued because a lot of Albertans asked for it to be looked into. I don't think there's anything wrong with investigating the possibility of it – but if it doesn't make sense, it doesn't make sense.”
Hanson also noted that there are benefits that can be gained by retaining the RCMP, such as connections to other international law enforcement agencies.
“I support the RCMP, and I support communities' choices in trying to improve the situation for their people,” said the northeastern Alberta MLA. “And I won't be voting on anything without talking to my constituents first.”