By Jensen, Randy on October 20, 2020.
The Lethbridge Police Service presented its quarterly report to city council on Monday, but also took the opportunity to get in an extra pitch to retain three programs brought in over the past few years for trial runs: The Watch program; the Community Peace Officer program; and the PACT (Police and Crisis Team).
City council will be reopening its four-year budget two years early in November to try to account for provincial funding cuts, added budget pressures due to COVID-19, and to take stock of any potential savings found due to the most ambitious operational review undertaken in the City’s recent history.
The LPS is also subject to an operational review and faces similar cuts to other City-funded departments of between five to 10 per cent.
Chief of Police Shahin Mehdizadeh faced questions from councillors on the costs of each of the three programs despite trying valiantly to have councillors focus on the results. The Watch program has an annual budget of around $600,000, the CPO program is slated to cost about $1.4 million in 2020, and the PACT program costs about $124,000 annually.
Councillors’ focus seemed to be fixated particularly on The Watch program.
Coun. Joe Mauro asked Mehdizadeh and Police Commission deputy chair Robert van Spronsen point blank if The Watch has such fantastic results as they are saying, why not absorb it into the Lethbridge Police Service budget instead of having city council fund it as an extra program?
Van Spronsen reminded councillors The Watch was brought in as an extra community safety initiative after city council demanded more budget creativity from the police service on how to help address concerns about the public’s perception of safety downtown without having to hire more sworn officers at a much higher cost.
Mehdizadeh said it was the same thought behind the Community Peace Officers, and both had achieved what the police service had asked them to do.
He pointed out The Watch volunteers have helped out with everything from basic wellness checks on individuals, to needle collection, to safe walks, and have helped with 27 overdose incidents in 2020 by administering Naloxone.
The Community Peace Officers have responded to 4,411 total occurrences in 2020, Mehdizadeh went on to explain, and have been dispatched to 3,610 calls. The program is also $420,000 under budget for 2020 so far, and returned $473,000 to City taxpayers last year after only filling nine of the 15 budgeted positions.
Mehdizadeh also strongly advocated for the PACT program, which costs only $124,000 for one officer’s salary per year at present. The officer works closely with an Alberta Health Services councillor as a team to address those in the community who regularly interact with police, and need frequent mental health interventions.
PACT has a caseload of 204 clients in Lethbridge, and Mehdizadeh encouraged council to consider potentially adding one to three more PACT teams to cover the city 24 hours per day – one more permanent officer and, he suggested, during the summer months the service’s dedicated school program officers could also be reassigned to the teams. However, he acknowledged, Alberta Health Services would also have to be on board, and he was still in discussions with local AHS representatives on that point.
After his presentation, Mehdizadeh reiterated to reporters what he said to councillors: in his estimation, the three programs had all proven their worth.
“All these programs provide a level of service the community otherwise would not otherwise get,” he said. “We have limited resources from a sworn officer perspective. They are tied up, and we just want to focus their energy and efforts on doing core policing duties. These programs are taking on a function that can easily be done by someone who is not a sworn police officer, and are allowing the police officers to be doing the work they should be doing to keep this community safe.”
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