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Service fee for too many calls to Edmonton police a potentially dangerous idea

Should building 'slumlords' be forced to pay for police visits when they over-use the service? One councillor says yes

Metro file

Last week, Coun. Scott McKeen proposed Edmonton examine charging fees for services for residential building owners who have residents that call the police too often. 

In an email, he explains the idea came to him because of one building downtown — his ward — that generated 180 calls to police last year alone. 

As McKeen said, the building owner didn't have a property manager overseeing his property and tenants, addressing concerns and issues, and the effects were obvious.

"As I argued to committee, it was like this chap was using the Edmonton Police Service as a private security company," McKeen says, in an email. "He refused to properly screen and supervise the building, so the crime and social disorder spilled into hallways, onto the front street and into the neighbouring community."

Further, McKeen says, if each of those 180 calls cost about $500 — which he said is a low estimate — this building is costing Edmonton $90,000 per year. 

McKeen's argument makes sense, but it's also pretty class-based. Many of the people who have police coming to their residences are often victims of crimes and they live in a vulnerable housing situation. 

Don't get me wrong: There are buildings in the city that have tenants who irritate people living around them.

But charging for access to the police can cause all sorts of problems for residents, and the impact of the fees falls disproportionately on the vulnerable, particularly women facing domestic violence. 

As of December 31, 2014 Edmonton Police Service reports about 7,849 events of domestic violence throughout the city. 

If fees for service were introduced, these landlords are likely to pass along the costs of these fees to the people living there—and many of them are already having trouble making ends meet, says Jackie Foord, CEO of the YWCA in Edmonton.  

“Most people who live in these places aren’t there by choice. Many of those people are in a precarious housing situation” says Foord.

“Anything that discourages people from calling for help when they need it isn’t good," she says. She adds there’s even a possibility someone who is abusive would be drawn to a location where high complaints happen and landlords discourage tenants from calling the police. “It boggles the mind some of the things that abusers do."

In a US study on the topic, researchers reviewed more than 59 municipalities with nuisance ordinances. The results of the study found that high averages of black households were visited and that black women were evicted at higher rates than any other population. One-third of the calls responded to were domestic-violence, and there were cases where landlords tried to discourage residents of the building from calling the police. 

McKeen, however, doesn't agree that domestic violence would be an issue. "I think this is a red herring," he says, in his email. "I believe if police were being called to the same residence on domestic violence concerns even twice a month, other services and interventions would be brought to the situation to solve the threat”. 

But domestic violence isn't an easily solved problem. Without careful consideration battered women will bear the brunt of a policy that charges for nuisance fees.

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