May 26th, 2024

City to watch how adding sheriffs works in other centres

By COLLIN GALLANT on February 16, 2023.

Are the sheriffs bound for downtown Medicine Hat? One city councillor wants to know.

This week the province announced that officers of the provincial branch of law enforcement will assist for 12 weeks this winter to address “disorder” in Calgary’s downtown.

That follows a similar pilot project in Edmonton, and after Premier Danielle Smith specifically mentioned her home riding of Medicine Hat among other centres where sheriffs could be used to augment a local police presence in downtowns, should the program prove effective.

Coun. Shila Sharps sits on the Medicine Hat Police Commission and operates a business in the downtown.

There, complaints about seemingly vagrant population scaring customers, causing property damage and causing trouble have grown in recent years.

Sharps herself says “for the most part downtown is trending in the right direction,” but she will watch the projects in larger cities with interest.

“I think our police department has a better handle on our downtown than some other places, just because of some of the decisions that have been made,” she told the News on Wednesday.

That is due to the creation of the Medicine Hat Police Services “Downtown Patrol Unit” created several year ago, and the local civic and law enforcement philosophy of approaching problems in the area.

“Give us an opportunity first to manage it, especially with a new police chief (Al Murphy hired in December), because I know he has ideas about how to approach it,” said Sharps.

She said if the province wants to support the local municipality, more funding, not necessarily personnel, should be made available to MHPS to use its own officers.

Alberta Sheriffs typically deal with duties such as prisoner transport, courtroom security and highway patrol. Starting later this month, 12 sheriffs in Edmonton will be assigned to support municipal police officers on downtown beats and bike patrols.

The hope is to increase police profile and outreach, said Smith. She said the province is acting on several fronts to address drug problems, but local law enforcement is “overwhelmed.”

“Open-air drug use and needles on the street are dangerous,” she told a news conference on Feb. 9, saying that crime and violence related to drug-use and mental health issues got “away from us over the last couple years, but we’re not going to allow that anymore.”

“If (the program) works we’re going to do more of that, because it’s not a problem anymore in just Calgary and Edmonton. It’s a problem in Lethbridge. It’s a problem in Medicine Hat and a problem in Wetaskiwin.

“Every community that you go to is starting to see this sort of open disorder. It’s dangerous and I think it’s causing people to lose confidence in public policing. We can’t have that. We support our police and our sheriffs, and are working together to address it.”

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents sheriffs, reserved comment on Wednesday as officials say they are still considering the issues and potential impacts, including staffing levels in smaller centres.

Chief Murphy was hired last December with a mandate to focus on tackling issues of crime, drugs and vagrancy in the city. He was unavailable for comment on Wednesday.

Last month the Medicine Hat Police Commission heard the downtown patrol unit was down to one officer in December, as one transferred to the general patrol section and another retired.

At the same meeting, senior officers assured the commission that patrol was “being supported and supplemented by other officers,” according to the minutes.

The unit responded to 11 calls for suspicious activity in October, but the number fell to three in December.

Over the same three-month period property offences averaged one per week, while “unwanted person” calls ranged from four to 10 per reports each month.

Medicine Hat Police Services’ budget is set to grow by $920,000 this year, in part to add two more uniformed officers and add an inspector, among other administration positions and items.

Shortly after the 2021 election, council stated a priority was to create an overarching strategy with social service agencies and the province to address disorder in the city.

In Medicine Hat, residents have expressed growing concern about transient population in areas outside the downtown core.

Business owners opposed the location of a temporary daytime homeless support shelter in a storefront at the corner of Third Street and Sixth Avenue in the winter of 2021.

The city installed portable toilets for public use near the Town Square development when it opened last summer, and has budgeted $560,000 to build permanent facilities.

It is also continuing to work behind the scenes to lobby for a 24-hour shelter service to offer a daytime location for under-housed individuals to gather.

Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis officially announced the program in Calgary this week, stating it was an extension of work on the issue.

“As the Calgary task force continues its work to make Calgary safer, it will be vital to continue to explore partnerships and collaborations as a way of addressing complex – and related – issues like crime, homelessness, addictions and mental health,” he said in a statement.

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