Police union demands apology after Edmonton Mayor's comments on homeless shelter tours

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Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson is standing by his criticism of police-guided tours of the city’s emergency homeless shelter, after the president of Edmonton’s police union demanded an apology.

On Monday, Edmonton Police Association president Michael Elliott slammed Iveson in an open letter, accusing the mayor of misstating the facts around a series of tours police recently offered to city councillors.

In particular, Elliott took issue with Iveson’s claim that attendees on the three unannounced tours were not wearing proper COVID-19 protective equipment.

“Your inflammatory rhetoric is unprofessional, unhelpful, and is political pandering,” Elliott wrote.

The letter is the latest in the fight which began April 16, when Iveson sent a letter to the chair of the Edmonton Police Commission decrying what he called “unscheduled study visits” at the Tipinawâw shelter, a temporary homeless shelter at the Edmonton Convention Centre.

The shelter is operated by a network of inner-city social agencies and funded by the federal and provincial governments to address gaps in the system resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Iveson said the visits — which downtown beat officers offered to city councillors — violated the “privacy and dignity” of shelter residents. He also repeated claims from shelter staff that the delegations were not wearing proper COVID-19 personal protective equipment (PPE).

Iveson reiterated those concerns Monday, noting he hadn’t yet read Elliott’s letter.

“I stand by the concerns that I raised on behalf of agency workers, on behalf of vulnerable people at the shelters, and out of concern for the need to maintain independence for police, from politics and from politicians,” he said in a news conference.

Michael Elliott, president of the Edmonton Police Association, responds to a report recently released by the Community Safety and Well-Being task force.
Michael Elliott, president of the Edmonton Police Association, responds to a report recently released by the Community Safety and Well-Being task force. Dylan Short

Elliott maintained the tours were an appropriate way of highlighting issues at the shelter, which is set to close April 30 and can house 300 overnight residents.

Edmonton police say the tours were offered to all councillors in the interests of “political neutrality.” Iveson toured the facility when it opened in October.

Elliott said crime at the shelter is well above average, and that police have responded to multiple assaults at the facility, including against a staff member.

“The staff members and those using the temporary shelters deserve to feel safe,” he wrote. “As of today, many do not.”

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“Visits to the shelters by city councillors, health inspectors, social services, and EPS members provide opportunities to learn first hand what is working, what is not working and where things can be improved.”

Among those who disagree was Ward 4 Coun. Aaron Paquette. According to emails obtained by Postmedia, Paquette’s office received an email April 12 from a city police constable offering tours of Tipinawâw as well as other downtown shelters and outdoor encampments.

“We want this to be unannounced to the shelter, as we want you to see for yourselves the true conditions,” the officer said.

A staffer in Paquette’s office declined the tour, citing the city’s surging COVID cases, and added they were concerned about the implications of such a visit.

“Councillor Paquette has no interest in participating in an act to catch encampment residents and shelter workers ‘off guard’ or by surprise, which in our opinion, puts Edmontonians and front line workers at unnecessary risk for COVID-19 transmission,” Paquette’s office wrote.

“We would caution against this proposal as action like this borders dangerously on poverty tourism.”

Last week, Councillors Sarah Hamilton and Tim Cartmell also criticized Iveson’s letter, saying it got facts wrong and cast aspersions on the motives of councillors who did take the tour.

They wrote: “Some describe the Edmonton Convention Centre as ‘international waters’ — a space with no accountability, no laws, no rules — and no protection of the most vulnerable that find themselves there.”

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Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson talks about new housing and shelter supports for Edmonton’s homeless and vulnerable population on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020.
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson talks about new housing and shelter supports for Edmonton’s homeless and vulnerable population on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. Photo by Larry Wong /Postmedia

Iveson said he recently received information from the agencies that run the shelter “substantiating” his concerns about attendees’ use of PPE. The centre requires visitors to wear face shields in addition to masks.

The public feud comes at a time when Edmonton city council is debating the results of a city police reform task force.

Earlier this month the city approved 13 of 14 recommendations from the task force, but held off on endorsing a recommendation to freeze police funding and divert budget increases to social welfare agencies, pending additional study. Elliott publicly criticized the report, calling it “insulting and demeaning” to police officers.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said a meeting with the police commission about the tours is pending.

jwakefield@postmedia.com

twitter.com/jonnywakefield

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