By Lethbridge Herald on October 29, 2020.
Lethbridge Police Service Chief of Police Shahin Mehdizadeh is settling into his new role and is preparing for crucial budget discussions with city council in November.
City council has asked the force to look at potentially a five- to 10-per-cent budget cut to its core funding this year, and will be discussing whether or not to continue The Watch program at a cost of $500,000 per year.
Mehdizadeh said the calculation for budget cuts is a simple one with serious potential consequences to community safety.
“Here is the reality of police work,” Mehdizadeh explained. “Our budget is mostly consumed in our salaries and people. I can’t save much money if I told our officers to walk versus drive more, and we can shut down some more lights in this building. Those costs are not something I have much influence over. Any reduction in police budget translates into fewer officers on the streets. Then we have to make a decision on what programs we can’t deliver anymore to the public based on those cuts. Those are a lot of the discussions we are having. We have given our plans to the City, and we will be going toward the end of November to have those discussions and presentations.”
Mehdizadeh currently has 172 gun-carrying officers and 65 civilian support staff in his department. All are necessary, he stated, to maintain a high level of service for the citizens of Lethbridge.
“The number of our civilian staff compared to other police forces of the same size, we don’t have enough,” he explained. “We are actually behind. But the 65 staff we have here are to provide support to 172 police officers. I look at our civilians as a platform we need to have strong for our police officers to be working on. To take civilian positions out of the equation is actually not the answer. If I were to take civilian positions out, I would actually have to get gun-carrying people to perform functions that they can have other people perform at a much lower cost. So that is not really good business.”
Mehdizadeh said a budget cut to the department might mean he has to make a choice between maintaining a core policing capability and sacrificing other important programs which make a difference to the longer-term crime-reduction strategy in the community.
“We will continue to provide adequate policing to the citizens here (no matter what),” he said, “don’t get me wrong. But again, we can only do so much based on the capacity we have here.”
As for The Watch, Mehdizadeh said he believes the program has clearly proven its worth.
“We found that 88 per cent of the citizens in Lethbridge are actually very supportive of The Watch program,” he explained, referring to the annual Lethbridge Police Service Performance Evaluation submitted to the police commission back in June. “A lot of the people on The Watch are the volunteers. They are the youth in the community who are actually building leadership skills by serving the community in that capacity. They are learning about the lifestyle and what causes drug issues.”
Mehdizadeh said there were two statistics he would reference for community members who have criticized the effectiveness, or questioned the value of, The Watch: The fact Watch volunteers have prevented 32 overdoses this year while working in the downtown, and the fact they have saved regular LPS officers from having to respond to an estimated 2,000 calls-for-service through their efforts.
“Anyone who tells me there is no value with The Watch, how can you say that when they have saved 32 lives? So there is value,” stated Mehdizadeh. “In addition when we look at from a business perspective, what The Watch has been doing is with volunteers — yes, there are some paid employees because they have to have paid employees to look after the volunteers out there to have that support and accountability piece in place — but the majority of them are volunteers who have actually reduced calls-for-service coming into us by being on the frontline and actually dealing with issues.”
Mehdizadeh said, in fact, all three direct funded council programs, The Watch, the Community Peace Officers and the PACT Team, have all proven their worth.
“Those initiatives have come to life to take some of those calls we don’t need have gun-carrying police officers attend to, and deal with some of those issues — they actually get ahead of that — which really provides us an opportunity where those units are reducing calls-for-service for gun-carrying police officers so they can focus on other priorities and the core-policing mandate,” he said.
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