For Mike Walkom, weekend nights on Jasper Avenue don’t include having a few drinks and spending time with friends at the bar anymore. Instead, the young Edmonton police constable is trying to keep the peace.
“When I was 18, not a lot could get me away from the bar,” says Walkom, who now puts many young males in the back of his car, something he attributes to a simple lack of connection between them and the communities. “They forget there are people that live around there,” he says. “They just kind of see it as an amusement park.”
The Edmonton bar scene is a hot spot for the young labour force moving into the city and commuting to the oil sands. Between 2001 and 2011, Edmonton’s population of 20- to 34-year-old males rose to 140,205 people, and a quarter of them were newcomers. That’s 38,363 young males — slightly more than the combined population of Lloydminster and Slave Lake coming into Edmonton, looking for work.
Our city is currently in the kind of rapid growth that scares social agencies; once the boom turns into a bust, many of these young males don’t have educated backgrounds to fall back on. A 2012 study by Athabasca University labour relations scholars Bob Barnetson and Jason Foster looked at the incoming workforce through the Alberta oil boom. They noted that between 2000 and 2002, the majority of foreign workers coming to Edmonton were university teachers and scientists. But between 2005 and 2008, most new workers entering the province were cooks and general labourers. As such, when the economic downturn hit in 2008, Alberta and British Columbia were the provinces that experienced the largest rise in unemployment.
Downtown Sgt. Ryan Lawley, a 10-year EPS veteran, has noticed a spike in the number of people arrested who are new to Edmonton. When many of these new residents can’t find work, they turn to crime. Because these males, who often have expendable incomes, have no ties to the communities in which they’ve landed, they might not care what happens there.
EPS stats reveal theft-related crime has consistently dropped since 2007, yet mischief has spiked in the last few years. But Lawley remains skeptical of stats when it comes to breaking down the figures. Crime analysts factor in the “dark figure of crime,” which takes into account the amount of crime that goes unreported. For example, if the police embark on a campaign to stop drunk drivers, the number of impaired-driving charges will spike, and then go back into the shadows shortly thereafter. “We throw a few numbers around that make headlines, put a bunch of knives on a table for the photo-op, but at the end of the day a number doesn’t make anyone feel safer,” says Lawley.
He and Walkom both advocate community initiatives as better means of both controlling and preventing crime. It’s Lawley’s belief that if a person is tied to his community, he wants to see only the best for it.
Walkom knows firsthand the impact that community engagement can have. Shortly after he joined EPS, he began coordinating events for the Community Action Team, an initiative that helps communities better communicate with the police, while bringing in counselors and therapists to help the homeless and those facing addiction problems. “The idea is to build trust and empower a community,” Walkom says. When the Community Action Team went into Belvedere, the neighbourhood saw a sharp drop in crime for three months, something, Walkom explains, is virtually unheard of.
It’s a similar story for Community Sgt. Chris Hayduk. When he started patrolling Edmonton’s Alberta Avenue area, it was one of the worst areas for crime in the city. Hayduk started Community Response to Urban Disorder in 2007, a 150-plus member not-for-profit society that puts on events like dinners and karaoke nights. These events give that single-male population more opportunities to plug into their communities.
Lawley shares Hayduk’s sentiment, saying that when it comes to the community initiatives that have been successful in Edmonton, EPS “is barely a rudder let alone a motor.” He looks at the events and festivals in our city, like Taste of Edmonton and the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival, as alternatives to spending six hours at the bar on the weekend.
“With events happening around the city, the bar becomes a stop rather than a destination.”
With so many initiatives on the go and even more budding, EPS is listening to the communities who want to see change. The challenge is trying to get more of the single male population without any community connection to buy into them.