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Office of the Mayor

Improving public safety downtown: a new model of collaboration

Pedestrians on the Peace Bridge

By Mayor Jyoti Gondek, Police Chief Mark Neufeld and Calgary Police Commission Chair Shawn Cornett

As cities emerge from the pandemic and assess the lasting impacts of hybrid and work-from-home arrangements over the past two years, Calgary finds itself in the enviable position of being second only to Montreal in terms of a return of workers to our downtown. Our city is picking up momentum with more people in offices, as well as on sidewalks and patios. While it’s not a full return to the activity of pre-2020 days, we are seeing more people travelling throughout the city and rediscovering downtown destinations.

As Calgarians re-engage, they are also finding their city has changed. Many people who are taking transit and coming downtown are recognizing that something has fundamentally shifted. Downtown businesses, property owners and service providers are noting the same shift. People are seeing things that leave them alternating between feeling uncomfortable and unsafe. Both feelings are valid.

Compounding issues

Places along our CTrain corridor and within downtown have changed over the past two years, as a result of many intertwined issues. A persistently depressed economy – layered with a pandemic and a decades-long shortage of affordable, supportive housing options – has resulted in complex situations of vulnerability for many of our residents. These situations may include lack of housing, physical illness, mental health issues, drug use and a variety of other struggles. In seeking cover from the elements or simple human connection, we are seeing people congregating in public spaces that were previously used specifically for single purposes like transit.

On top of this, the toxicity and addictive qualities of the street drug supply are beyond anything experts have seen in the past. This compounding issue also has detrimental consequences for public safety and wellbeing, as users can become detached and violent. For this reason, the public and peace officers are facing the unknown in situations of addressing drug use or overdose, often resulting in unpredictable situations of violence. There is no quick fix for this situation, as we require a robust combination of supervised consumption, addictions and recovery supports along with policing and emergency response working in tandem.

In the face of these wicked problems, the City of Calgary has taken the role of convenor, bringing together multiple stakeholders to ensure the magnitude of the issues are understood and collaborative approaches can be taken. An opportunity to work together has been created, and the potential solutions that are being created leverage strengths and resources from multiple parties.

Investments in safety

The City of Calgary has maintained close ties with our provincial government partners to provide regular updates on how we are addressing the serious issues our city has faced related to housing, mental health, addictions, crime and disorder. We have jointly committed to investing $4 million in partner funding from the province towards a downtown safety strategy. This is in addition to the $255 million we have committed as a city toward downtown revitalization. There has also been an increase of more than $3 million in transit funding to hire additional transit safety officers and address safety issues we are seeing on our train line. Additionally, there are more outreach workers and downtown ambassadors on the street as the result of nearly $8 million in funding this year through Calgary’s Mental Health and Addictions Strategy.

Collaboration is key

Further, Calgary Police Service (CPS) has similarly taken a collaborative approach to dealing with increasingly complicated calls for service. Through partnerships with health care providers, mental health experts, Calgary 211 and social service organizations, CPS has been able to divert calls to caring professionals best equipped and trained to assist Calgarians in need. This allows officers to focus on calls that require their expertise.

Additionally, the success of call diversion efforts means that more officers can be deployed to situations where a criminal element threatens public safety and wellbeing. The successful dismantling of a gang-related encampment downtown in early 2022 was based on strong partnerships between CPS, local shelters and other agencies that identified criminal activity for the police to manage while they assisted victims of the gang activity.

Whereas traditional methods of addressing social disorder were disconnected, this new model of collaboration addresses these overlapping issues in a way that encourages sharing of information to ensure the most appropriate response. Other cities have adopted such collaborative models over time to ensure that citizens receive the best possible service from the best suited organization.

Our collaborative approach is intended to provide the most appropriate supports for those in need. It is clear, however, that there are some who refuse to access these supports and continue to victimize members of the community, including some of our most vulnerable populations. The Justice system needs to better ensure the appropriate sentences and diversion efforts are applied in these cases and we will be advocating for those improvements.

Calgary is a young city that has faced serious challenges with an economic recession, a pandemic and complex issues that can compromise public wellbeing. Facing these challenges head on, multiple partners have banded together to collaborate on solutions that are forward thinking and appropriately funded. We know there is more work to do, and even stronger partnerships to form, as we collectively tackle this social issue. Together, we have the best interest of Calgarians as our priority.

Categories: Downtown, Safety