Sep. 07, 2011 - Issue #829: Capital City Burlesque and Sex Issue 2011
New plan looks familiar
New solutions to address crime in Edmonton are similar to the old ones
'We've got a shiny apple here and we want to polish it a little bit more over the next couple of days," Police Chief Rod Knecht told the media last month as the city eagerly awaited details of the Violence Reduction Action Plan he and the Mayor were about to announce.
It was June, before the Mayor broke his silence regarding the ever-increasing homicide tally, which had just reached 26 with the death of Bruce Dumais. As it turns out, the police chief might have better spent his summer dusting off bookshelves rather than polishing fruit, for much of the strategy unveiled that day could have been found amongst recommendations of various task forces and action committees going back to the early 1990s.
The new police chief, sworn in just weeks earlier, vowed to make the matter his highest priority. Two months and seven murders later, local media got fed up waiting for the plan. Finally, following a fair dose of criticism for their silence, Knecht held a press conference on August 8 to advise that he would hold another press conference, with the mayor, two days later.
"Announcing that you're going to announce a press conference for a possible strategy suggests that they feel the need to be seen doing something," Jim Lightbody, a political science professor at the University of Alberta, told the Edmonton Journal prior to the August press conference. "If they knew what they were going to do, they should be doing it."
While the mayor and police chief continue to present very few specifics about their strategy, city council voted last week to approach the province to help fund a 24/7 service centre downtown, one of the REACH recommendations submitted back in 2009.
Kate Gunn, interim executive director at REACH denies that this recommendation has been sitting on a shelf collecting dust. "Work on 24/7 has gone ahead throughout 2010 and 2011. We've been working with a number of coalition partners to flesh out what it would be like, what it would cost," she explained in an interview.
A similar proposal to provide round-the-clock services to the city's homeless and vulnerable population had been made, however, back in 1991 by the Task Force on Inner City Crime. Harvey Voogd sat on that task force and admits that, when it comes to Edmonton and crime prevention, it can seem like a case of déjà vu all over again. "In addition to the 24/7 recommendation, there were vigorous discussions 20 years ago about knives," said Voogd, recalling the "No Knives" signs placed prominently around
In 1990, as Edmonton headed toward a record number of homicides, then-mayor Jan Reimer set up the Mayor's Task Force on Safer Cities, appointing citizens-at-large along with representatives from government, the police department and the labour council. With a focus on crime prevention through both social development and environmental design, the 15-member group was divided into subcommittees and over the two years that followed, produced a series of reports and recommendations on issues such as family violence, safe housing, young adult employment, children and youth and safe urban design. Voogd, who currently serves as the program manager at the Mediation and Restorative Justice Centre, was also a participant on the Safer Cities Family Violence and Children & youth sub-committees.
The Safer Cities initiative had successes. The city and the province were convinced to fund an Inner-city hot lunch program for children attending schools in economically-disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Beaver Hills Park on Jasper Avenue, long a hotbed of violence, was redesigned according to crime prevention through environmental design principles. In an innovative response to family violence, joint response teams were formed to deal with domestic assaults, pairing social workers with police officers to conduct follow-up visits, and the City of Edmonton Youth Council was formed.
While Reimer's efforts faced resistance from some of the more conservative members on council, her agenda faced even more significant challenges when the provincial government made massive cuts to its social service budget in October of 1993. In 1995, Reimer was defeated by Bill Smith, who did not share his predecessor's enthusiasm for "social engineering," however the committee continued to be chaired by the Mayor and report to City council until 2001.
Since that time, Edmonton has had a variety of task forces and action committees. In 2005, Safer Cities, now a city program, took on the new name of Safedmonton. In 2006, an Action Committee on Community Violence was struck and in 2007, the Edmonton Community Drug Strategy Task Force tabled its report and the Community Safety Leadership Council was formed. A new Office of Community Safety was launched that same year.
In 2008, Mayor Mandel created the Taskforce on Community Safety with the goal of producing an action plan—known as "REACH"—with recommendations and implementation strategies by early autumn 2009. That report was presented to City Council in September, 2009.
Asked to comment about whether all of these various task forces and action plans really make a difference when it comes to preventing crime in our city, Harvey Voogd was circumspect. "I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I'm very proud of the significant inroads that we made in the area of family violence," he said, citing support for at-risk youth as one area where he doesn't feel a strong sense of progress.
Even without reports collecting dust and political foot-dragging, Voogd says the job of crime prevention is never done. "Even when you build a brand new house," he says, "you've still got to maintain it."
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