In Edmonton, an escalating murder rate has perplexed Edmonton police and put that city’s residents on edge.
At 43 homicides, and likely counting, the murder rate this year in the capital city has surpassed all other major cities in the nation. Winnipeg, once Canada’s murder leader, is also on a record pace for killings, but at 35, it cannot match the tragedy being wrought in Edmonton.
At last count, Edmonton’s population stood at 782,439 (2009 municipal census), but it is over 800,000 residents now. That means the murder rate, per 100,000 people, stands at roughly 5.4. (Calgary, with 10 murders this year and a population of about one million people, has a murder rate of one per 100,000 people.)
In Red Deer, five homicides have been recorded this year. In a city of 91,877 (2011 census), that means the murder rate, per 100,000 people, stands at roughly 5.4 — Edmonton-like numbers.
For a city this size, five killings is a disturbingly high number.
Edmonton Police Chief Rod Knecht, slightly more than six months on the job, has made the murders there his priority. He is redirecting resources to solve the murders, even though he concedes that strategy impacts other investigations. At the moment, charges have been laid or perpetrators have been identified in 63 per cent of Edmonton’s killings; in Red Deer, charges have been laid or explanations offered for four of five deaths, or 80 per cent.
Knecht talks about the need to take a multi-pronged approach to dealing with the violence in his city: in order to reverse the trend, he emphasizes prevention, intervention and education.
He talks openly about how uncertain the causes are, saying they run the gamut from gangs to drugs to family violence to murder-suicide.
The one thing of which Knecht is certain is that the majority of the killings have involved people whom he described in an interview with CBC Radio as marginalized. He said, most often, the people involved in these crimes lack the necessary resources to cope with life.
Essentially, while striving to police Edmonton, Knecht is throwing the ball back to government.
It’s a valid and timely toss — social services across the province are increasingly under pressure, particularly in regional centres like Red Deer and Edmonton, where vulnerable people migrate to find support and services.
Certainly in Red Deer we can be concerned about the number of killings, and the pressure those crimes put on police.
The most recent Vital Signs report for Red Deer rated Crime/Law and Order as the second most important issue to respondents. And the last two Vital Signs reports focus clearly on the gaps in economic and social structure that put people on the margins.
But we need to recognize that Red Deer’s overall crime rate has decreased almost 20 per cent from 2004, according to a policing review completed for the city earlier this year.
And we need to be prepared, as taxpayers, to accept rising costs if we wish to increase policing resources. Current policing costs represent almost eight per cent of the total operational budget of Red Deer ($20.8 million in this fiscal year, out of a total operational budget of about $263 million). That’s an annual contribution of $226 from every man, woman and child.
Certainly we need to talk about how our police resources are employed (although in the gap between Insp. Brian Simpson’s departure and Insp. Warren Dosko’s arrival, that has been difficult), and whether we need more officers here.
But we also need to talk about whether our social services resources can meet the needs and, if not, what we can do to ensure those needs are met in the future.
We need to pull people in from the margins, and give them the support needed to improve their lives. Think of it as a kind of preventive medicine in the battle to minimize violence in our society.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.