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Final report shows Calgary’s Alberta Sheriffs pilot had high awareness, limited safety impact

While the joint Calgary Police Service and Alberta Sheriffs pilot project had high awareness among citizens, the majority said their perception of safety in downtown didn’t change, according to a detailed impact assessment of Operation CREST (Crime Reduction Enforcement Support Team), obtained by LiveWire Calgary.

The 21-page report prepared by the Calgary Police Service showed that in a 76-person survey of employees at downtown businesses and groups that were asked about the operation, 56 per cent said their perception of safety did not change, while 37 per cent said that it did.

Although a full 85 per cent would support having more Sherrifs in the downtown core, respondents were split on whether they noticed a greater uniformed presence: 49 per cent yes, 48 per cent no.

The province announced a 12-week pilot project that saw the deployment of 12 Alberta Sheriffs with Calgary police officers patrolling the downtown in February 2023.

The government said at the time the partnership was designed to address ongoing concerns with public disorder in downtown Calgary, and provide further resources to help with crime and safety. Alberta’s Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis said that success would be measured in Calgarians feeling safe.

“That certainly is a narrative that I have heard time and time again, whether it be in my constituency or outside of my constituency, that the folks are not feeling safe,” Minister Ellis said in February.

Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld also said at that time that if Calgarians were seeing fewer of the incidents that made them feel less safe, “that will be a success.”

While the province in April touted the initial success of the Alberta Sheriffs program, citing the number of calls for service generated by the CPS-Sheriff teams, the detailed final report painted a less optimistic outcome for Operation CREST.

Public-reported crime and social disorder calls for service showed little-to-no overall reduction during the entire pilot project.

“Public respondents noted an increase in uniform presence in the downtown core, but, unfortunately, most reported little change in their overall perception of safety,” an executive summary of the report read.

“In addition, the statistical analysis indicates the pilot deployment displaced crime and social disorder within hotspot locations, but had limited statistical impact in the broader deployment zones.

Mixed results, with room to improve

According to the report, there were 30 combined officers divided into two teams of 15 — nine CPS members and six Alberta Sheriffs. Each team followed different shift schedules, the report noted.

Three communities: Downtown Commercial Core, Downtown East Village and Beltline were the primary focus areas for the deployment. Five locations — City Hall / Olympic Plaza, The Drop-In Centre, Century Gardens, Central Memorial Park and Stephen Avenue Mall were key locations for the Operation CREST teams.

The report said that the units weren’t initially put on CTrains, though stations were included if they came up as an area of concern. By April, stations along 7 Avenue S were included in the deployment.

CPS Supt. Scott Boyd said that there were a variety of factors that impacted the success of the deployment. They surveyed both CPS members and Alberta Sheriffs and took a look at the data to determine the efficacy of the program.

“What we know is that at the end of the day, officers were mixed on what they think that they were able to achieve,” he said.

“We learned that we could do a little bit better job at some joint training opportunities, some consistency around that and the skill sets, as well as making sure that we had better access to sharing of information and databases and ensuring the enforcement authorities.”

The report also shows that the short duration of the pilot made it challenging to evaluate. It also indicated that six or fewer officers were working on any particular shift, which may have impacted citizens’ overall perception of safety.

Participating officers responding to an internal survey of Operation CREST had mixed reactions: 29 per cent of CPS respondents felt the pilot had a positive impact, while 90 per cent of Sheriff respondents did—for an average of 54 per cent overall support between the two police agencies.

Ninety per cent of Sheriffs said they professionally benefitted from the pilot, compared to 14 per cent of CPS officers.

All of the Sheriff respondents indicated they would participate in another partnership, compared to 14 per cent of CPS respondents—largely due to challenges identified in levels of training, equipment, logistics, access to CPS databases, and varying degrees of authority leading to increased workloads for CPS officers.

One of the challenges outlined in the report was that the Calgary sheriff deployment didn’t allow for Alberta Sheriffs to issue tickets.

It also didn’t provide training on the CPS records management system. That differed from the Edmonton pilot project where a longer lead-up time allowed for training on information systems and to be sworn in by bylaw authorities to issue tickets.

Increase in visibility, not just enforcement

Calgary Downtown Association executive director Mark Garner said having the pilot program allowed them to collect and interpret another set of data to determine how best to address public safety in the core.

The Calgary Downtown Association conducted the in-person surveys, and was a partner in Operation CREST.

To that end, Garner said, the data shows the Alberta Sheriffs pilot achieved one of the main goals he had for the deployment: Visibility of law enforcement. 

“I don’t think it’s ever been clear or transparent the difference between Edmonton’s sheriff program versus the Calgary program. I don’t think that was ever publicly or even through media disclosed that. in Edmonton, the sheriff program was around strong enforcement,” he said.

“Here it was around increased visibility and relationship building.”

While the visibility was good, Garner said the report showed that it may have contributed to the displacement of the public disorder issues to other areas. Still, the fact the visibility didn’t have a greater impact on perception of safety surprised Garner – to a degree.

Unless there’s more of an enforcement approach, offenders may conceal their public disorder (open consumption, as an example), and then resume once officers have vacated the area, Garner said.

“We have to have a bit of zero tolerance; I hate to use that word, but that’s what’s happening and what we hear in the community,” he said.

“It’s like, if you’re not going to get rid of the behavioral issues, then what’s the point?”

Non-criminal calls make up the majority

Overall, the data shows that calls for service in the downtown were up during the deployment period, but the report notes that several factors could be driving that, including other police operations taking place in these areas (Safe Public Spaces Action Plan, Operation Triple Triple, Operation Double Double, along with an undercover operation).

There was also a downtown response team activated that was comprised of uniformed officers, downtown ambassadors, social agency personnel and private security. The report indicated that an unseasonably warm March to May also may have led to more people being in these areas.

As a result, officer-generated calls for service rose 37 per cent during the pilot over the five-year average. The report states that this indicates increased proactive patrols and on-view reporting of incidents in the area.

One of the aspects the report highlights is that the majority of public-generated calls for service are non-criminal. Historically 55 per cent of the calls in the hotspot areas are disturbance, check on welfare, suspicious persons and miscellaneous.

Still, Boyd said those calls impact Calgarians’ perception of safety in the core.

“I would say that it’s clear that a lot of the interactions that were taking place are with individuals exhibiting discerning behavior such as yelling and the aggressive kind of pieces that that maybe aren’t criminal, but they certainly detract from making people feel safe in and around the downtown core, really diminishing that sense of safety in our public spaces,” he said.

He noted they are working with other organizations in an ongoing partnership to address some of these challenges. 

The report states that while call diversion (social service agency response rather than law enforcement) wasn’t a part of the operation, “it surfaced as a key element during this impact assessment.”

“Social disorder data reported to CPS may be under-reported due to call-diversion and private security efforts, ultimately not reflecting the experience or concerns of downtown community members,” the report read.

It said that although there wasn’t an overall increase in social disorder that matched community concerns, the data showed that there wasn’t a decrease typically seen during proactive enforcement like this.

Pilot projects are for information gathering

Supt. Boyd said the province wanted to share resources to help with public safety in the area, and they wanted them in place as quickly as possible.

He said their report, however, outlined some of the challenges — ones they tried to mitigate during the operation.

“I guess this report is about just solidifying that, if this opportunity were ever to present itself again, let’s have the lead-up time that allows us to deploy them to their greatest potential.”

The report said training consistency, equipment and logistics, enforcement authority, dispatch, deployment and operational language were identified challenges. Sheriffs couldn’t access CPS databases and reports, “resulting in additional workload for CPS officers.”

That resulted in reduced capacity of other routine duties assigned to either party, the report read.

Pilot projects are for trying things and examining outcomes, Boyd said. They’re meant to explore the potential of different organizational relationships.

“It also opens the door for future further conversations that have been taking place between the government and CPS seeing if there’s an appetite in the future for this kind of stuff,” he said.

One of the areas identified in the report that would be of substantial help to CPS is prisoner transport. Boyd said Alberta Sheriffs are renowned for their transport capabilities, and even if that kind of partnership was the result of this pilot, it would help keep CPS officers on the street, doing the work they’re best equipped to do.  

“I think agencies need to reflect on what we do best,” he said.

“These types of situations are all about exploring what’s worked and what could work better in the future.”

That’s something reiterated by Ward 7 Coun. Terry Wong, whose Ward encompasses the deployment area.

“It would be ideal to deploy our law enforcement in the areas of their expertise and experience,” he told LWC.

He said it may have been worthwhile to have the resources over a longer period, as 12 weeks isn’t long enough to have a substantial impact. He said there may have been a misalignment in the operation, but the agencies can work on the right collaboration.

From a public safety perspective, however, Wong felt that resources might be better spent on grants to provide more CPS officers over the next three to five years. He said those resources would likely have a greater impact, and it buys time for the city to create a funding mechanism to support those officers.

Future sheriff deployment in Calgary downtown?

LiveWire Calgary sent a series of questions about the Operation CREST impact assessment to the Ministry of Public Safety.

When asked about the operational challenges, the lead-up time to prepare, if they were open to exploring prisoner transport solutions, or if they were happy with the outcomes.

Further, the ministry was asked if they rushed the announcement before the spring 2023 election.

Arthur Green, press secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, responded via email without directly answering those questions.

“All Albertans have the right to feel safe in their communities. Alberta’s government continues to work closely with the City of Calgary and the Calgary Police Service to support solutions for combatting violence and crime in the city and ensuring that Calgarians feel safe,” the email read.  

“This sheriff’s pilot program was only one of several steps Alberta’s government is taking to address crime and violence in downtown Calgary.”

Green said the province is also providing funding for 100 new frontline police officers in Calgary and Edmonton (50 in each city), “knowing that more boots on the ground can be an effective deterrent to crime and help ensure people are safe on our streets and in our public spaces.”

The Calgary Downtown Association’s Mark Garner said that the pilot project provided an education if nothing else. 

“We did something, did it address the issues that we had anticipated? I think based on the summary report, that basically said no, it hadn’t addressed what we expected it to address,” he said.

If asked, however, he said he’d want the sheriffs back.

“Now I want to tweak the service, right? I want to tweak what’s done as a community,” he said.

“We learned some valuable lessons and the data we captured shows it didn’t get the gains that we wanted. So, now how do we evolve?”

CREST Final Report by Darren Krause on Scribd