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Edmonton police hope public will fund new intelligence centre that has raised privacy concerns

Police foundation raising $1.5M for a 24/7 technological hub that would pull information from surveillance cameras and Facebook to use in conjunction with police data

John Howard Society Executive Director Chris Hay says at his previous job he built an intelligence centre like the one EPS wants to employ – and he sees pros and cons.

Kevin Tuong / Metro File

John Howard Society Executive Director Chris Hay says at his previous job he built an intelligence centre like the one EPS wants to employ – and he sees pros and cons.

Edmonton police hope the public will fund an intelligence centre that some worry could lead to unfair targeting of marginalized populations.

The Operations Intelligence and Command Centre is a 24/7 technological hub that would pull information from CCTV feeds and Facebook to use in conjunction with police data, in a bid to prevent and solve crimes more efficiently.

The Edmonton Police Foundation aims to raise $1.5 million to build it.

“Our goal is to make Edmonton the safest city in North America. The OICC is the singlemost thing that will help us get there faster,” said the foundation’s chair, Ashif Mawji.

The centre could be used, for example, when a suspect in a kidnapping is caught on a surveillance camera.

Police could run the camera image through a facial recognition process and match the suspect’s face to a social media profile, regardless of whether that person is already in the police database.

“It can go through it thousands and thousands of times faster than a human can,” Mawji said.

Staff Sgt. Warren Driechel with the EPS intelligence section said the centre was recommended after police reviewed of their current intelligence processes and found several gaps.

EPS crime analysts and intelligence personnel currently work regular business hours, for example, which means a series of break-ins that happen over the weekend might not be recognized as a pattern until Monday, when it’s too late.

Driechel said the centre would allow police to move to a predictive, or proactive, policing model.

“For us, it’s new territory,” he said.

“We have to become a little more efficient about how we deploy our resources around crime. We’re kind of stuck in a reactive model right now.”

He acknowledged there are privacy concerns to address, and said EPS Chief Rod Knecht has already brought in the privacy commissioner’s office to discuss those.

Driechel said police would test the data and algorithms to ensure no demographics would be unfairly targeted before they put anything into place.

“As soon as you attach a word like intelligence to something it sounds very nefarious. But it’s really not,” he said.

Chris Hay is the executive director of the John Howard Society, which runs programs and supports for ex-inmates, but he used to run the EPS intelligence unit, he said.

Between those two jobs, he served as tactical advisor to the minister of national security in Trinidad and Tobago, where he actually built an intelligence centre like the one EPS is hoping to obtain.

Hay said he’s seen the predictive policing approach go both ways.

“Although I have been involved in the past and have seen these types of centres erected ethically and legally, and show value in trying to prevent crime, I have seen just as many more that have restricted the movements of law-abiding citizens and over-targeted our poorest populations and our most marginalized populations,” Hay said.

In New York and Chicago, he said, police used a predictive policing model to target Black and Hispanic populations.

Sharon Polsky with the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association said the centre would inevitably lead to profiling.

She said there is “something very distasteful” about gathering information on law-abiding citizens in case it’s needed in the future, and it could lead to a chilling effect.

“Yes it helps to be able to assign police resources to where it needs to be, but human nature being what it is, biases enter into it," Polsky said. "It can't be helped."

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