Police alone can’t shoulder the burden of communities safety — that is one of the messages shared by an American police chief during the second day of the Safety of Our Cities Conference in Edmonton.
“None of us are going to arrest our way into safer cities, that’s not the answer,” said Eddie Garcia, chief of the Dallas Police Department and chair of the Major City Chiefs Association, of which the Edmonton Police Service is a member.
The three-day conference brought together police services from across Canada and the United States along with social agencies, corporations, public health and government officials.
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Like Edmonton’s chief Dale McFee has noted, Garcia said police alone can’t fix the social issues plaguing cities across North America that stem from addictions, mental health concerns, poverty due to the rising cost of living or joblessness.
“We should not be in the homelessness business, quite frankly,” he said Tuesday after delivering a keynote address to the conference on innovative approaches to community safety.
Garcia made it clear police cannot and should not carry the load alone — but far too often, officers are the ones being called on to deal with social issues.
“We will deal with the criminal element that’s in encampments and in certain areas, for example.
“But being homeless shouldn’t be a crime that the police need to deal with, and we’re being let down — quite frankly — while other systems aren’t picking up the pieces for us.”
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Just as Vancouver Police Department Chief Adam Palmer noted on Monday, Garcia echoed when it comes to supportive housing, just getting a roof over a homeless person’s head isn’t enough.
Wraparound social supports to address their mental health or addictions issues also need to be considered.
“It’s not as simple many times as just providing housing,” he said, adding without being matched with the right environment, recently housed people are being set up to fail.
At the same time, he recognized governments don’t have endless funds to build and service affordable housing.
“There’s got to be somewhere in the middle between living under a bridge and spending millions of dollars in housing,” he said. “There’s got to be something in the middle that we can do collectively.”
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Since implementing a violent crime reduction plan in 2021 that separated Dallas into grids, zoned in on crime hotspots, and used data to drive exactly where officers should go, Garcia said the Texas city has seen an an overall drop of violent crime.
“I think what’s working for us really is just being strategic and being surgical in the manner in which we’re using data to drive, where we go,” Garcia said.
The Dallas Police Department teamed up with criminologists at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2021 to develop a three-part violent crime reduction plan:
- Short-term hot spots policing strategy to increase police visibility at micro locations (330’x330′ grids) where violent crime was concentrated and prioritizing street-level deterrence and arrest of repeat offenders in these areas.
- Mid-term place network investigations strategy to identify and disrupt networks of criminogenic places that disproportionately contribute to violent crime in Dallas
- Longer-term focused deterrence strategy and urban blight abatement that included a vacant lot “greening” program and vacant/dilapidated building abatement strategy
“The focus deterrence part of it is really in reinvesting in people, in places and ensuring individuals have an opportunity to get out of a life of violent crime while at the same time holding them accountable if they continue to be in that life of violent crime,” Garcia said.
The police chief said the optics were important, as was being proactive instead of reactive: to not just be in communities in moments of crisis, but have officers in areas on a regular basis, ridding neighbourhoods of the criminal element.
“I go to a lot of community meetings and there’s not a neighbourhood impacted by violent crime in the city that I work in — regardless of racial makeup, language spoken or economic status — that I’ve ever heard the words, ‘We want to see less of you in our neighbourhoods.’ It just doesn’t happen.
“Being out there, being present has been extremely helpful and I think it’s helped our community feel safer.”
Garcia said at the same time, it was important his police force prove it could be trusted.
That became even more critical during the defund the police movement that became a prominent theme during the George Floyd protests that began in May 2020.
“They want us to be professional. We are our own worst enemy. We need to be better as a profession — there’s no question about it. But our communities don’t want us to go away. And recognizing and balancing that fact with our communities is extremely important,” he said.
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Another step Garcia said was key to reducing crime: the unwavering support from Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson and the city’s leaders — a position Garcia said was not popular during calls to defund the police.
“He was very pro-police while at the same time, wanting us to be better as a profession and understanding that you could have both,” Garcia said of his mayor.
“Certainly, he was one of the few that I remember being vocal about the importance of police at a time when it was not the politically correct thing for some people to do.”
The chief says even when there were protests outside the mayor’s home, he did not waver. That was critical for morale and critical for a successful force.
“Getting support and figuring out how you can get more support from your senior leadership, making sure you have your finger on the pulse of the morale of your department and making sure that you have community support and that you’re looking at all three of those like an emotional bank account – and I think you can’t be overdrawn in any of those. You have to put deposits in each one of those.”
The Dallas chief also spoke about another issue that’s top of mind in Edmonton: bail reform.
“It’s been an issue with all of us. It’s certainly an issue in the state of Texas,” Garcia said.
He said the system as a whole can’t be serious about gun crime if officers are risking their lives to take people off the street, only to see offenders released back on the street in a couple of days or weeks.
“It’s very demoralizing to our community and to our honourable men and women in rank and file.”
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Gun violence has been a problem in Edmonton for over a year now. In August, there were 22 reported shooting occurrences — up 36 per cent year over year.
Overall there have been 152 shootings in 2023, police said in a news release last week – up 32 per cent from 2022. The Edmonton Police Service has also seized 679 firearms year to date.
The Dallas police chief said while they’ve had success with bringing down violent crime, they can’t pat themselves too much on the back.
“We all have successes or failures. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. There is just another tunnel,” Garcia said, noting he flew out to Edmonton after holding a news conference after one of his officers was shot on the job last week.
“It’s a long road. We didn’t get into this mess overnight. We’re not going to get out of it overnight.”
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Garcia praised the collaboration that come out of conferences like Safety of Our Cities, saying whether you’re the a police chief in northern Texas or a winter city in Canada — everyone is in the same boat.
“Our strategies can work on on either side of the border,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to to break bread and share ideas.”
While the focus at the conference on Tuesday morning was guns and gangs, the theme on Tuesday afternoon shifted to recovery and partnerships.
The keynote speech on fair models of reducing substance use in people who threaten public safety will be presented by Dr. Keith Humphreys from Stanford University, and the ensuing panel will include experts from Alberta Health Services, EPS, The Policy Works, Delta Police Department and HelpSeeker Technologies.
Vulnerable populations and the homeless will be the focus on Wednesday, where Canadian Country Music songwriter and performer Paul Brandt will give a speech about the #NotInMyCity initiative to end human trafficking and sexual exploitation, and Anu George Canjanathoppil from the International Justice Mission will talk about Canada’s unique role in ending slavery.
The Safety of Our Cities conference will now be held every two years in a different city.