In an effort to help manage an ongoing staffing shortage for the local RCMP detachment, St. Albert city council voted to increase the number of RCMP officers the city asks the federal government to assign to the community.
Prior to Tuesday's vote, St. Albert's RCMP detachment had an authorized force of 70 officers, although the actual number of officers currently working totals just 55 as 13 officers are on medical or parental leave, and two positions are vacant. When officers are on leave, their positions are considered ‘soft’ vacancies, whereas vacant positions are considered ‘hard’ vacancies.
As the Gazette reported in September, the substantial number of officers currently on leave means that the detachment will need to reduce proactive policing efforts, such as attending community events, so that enough officers are available to respond to and follow-up on calls.
Council voted unanimously to increase the authorized force to 75. The price tag associated with the increase in officers was not available by press time.
The vote means Mayor Cathy Heron will now send a formal letter to the federal government requesting the additional five officers.
A report to council written by the director of emergency services, Everett Cooke, who is also the city's fire chief, states that increasing the authorized force may not have an immediate impact as it could be more than a year before new officers are assigned to St. Albert's detachment.
“Once [the letter is] received, the RCMP will work to address the request... by training new members or by redeploying any available members to St. Albert,” Cooke wrote.
“This process is not immediate and it may take upwards of a year before we realize any new officers.”
In an interview, Coun. Ken MacKay, who had a 30-plus year career in law enforcement before becoming a city councillor, said increasing the authorized force of the detachment is one of the few options council has to try and manage the situation.
“We're really in a tough spot,” he said. “We're running dangerously thin for our shifts, and they have to take other members from other duties to put them out on general shift to respond to calls or they tend to get overtime or bring in members from [other detachments].”
“This isn't an immediate strategy, but it's something that we can do.”
During the council meeting, Heron said she has heard from “many concerned residents” about the “real or perceived” lack of RCMP visibility in the community, and that she hopes increasing the authorized force of the detachment will alleviate those concerns.
“There is a struggle trying to serve a community of over 70,000 people with  officers ... that's really low, so we need all the help we can get.”
Prior to voting, multiple members of council said they were frustrated that the RCMP detachment's staffing issue has persisted to the point of council increasing the overall number of officers the city asks for.
“I am dismayed that we continually have to exercise this particular option to get the number of officers that we actually require to service a community of 68,000-70,000 people,” Coun. Wes Brodhead said. “For 13 years I've been doing this and it seems like this conversation happens often.”
“This [frustration] is not about the officers that are assigned here — they're all wonderful people and they have a tough job to do — but when we speak to the commanding officers of the province, fundamentally there's got to be something that they can do whereby a local detachment is not losing 20 per cent or 25 per cent of their detachment to soft vacancies.”
Likewise, Coun. Natalie Joly said she was “frustrated that we're having to exercise this strategy” in order to ensure that enough officers are available to police St. Albert.
Cooke's report explains that the increased force authorization won't have an impact on next year's city budget as the city has already budgeted for 65 officers, and it's unlikely the detachment will be able fill existing vacancies, let alone the additional positions.
“In the unlikely event that the RCMP fills to the authorized strength, [or] bills over the allocated operating budget, the city may utilize the RCMP Contract Expense Reserve to address any shortfalls,” Cooke wrote, adding that the reserve currently has a balance of about $1.1 million and the per-officer cost is estimated to be $228,000 per year.