Gunshots rang out just east of Edmonton’s downtown early Friday morning, leaving a young man dead and extending the city’s grim plod towards a record-high number of homicides.
It was the city’s 25th slaying of the year, nearly equal to the 27 it had in all of 2010 and well above other Canadian cities. For instance, the province’s other major centre, Calgary, has had two murders this year.
As forensics crews continued to investigate a secluded roadway east of downtown where the latest victim was found dead just after 3 a.m., Edmonton Acting Police Chief David Korol tried to make sense of the spike.
“This is Edmonton’s most recent homicide, way too many for a city this size,” Acting Chief Korol said, adding the city remains safe for those who aren’t involved in crime. However, there’s no single reason why the city has seen such a spike so early in the year – alcoholism and drug abuse are common in most of the slayings, and nearly all of the victims are believed to have known their attacker. Some have been domestic killings.
“But, looking at the data, it’s not pointing to anything specific with any degree of strength” that would suggest why the spike occurred, Acting Chief Korol said, adding: “There are very few commonalities among the homicides we’ve investigated thus far.”
The highest annual homicide total is 39, set in 2005, the acting chief said. This year’s early surge has left the city on pace for more than 50. “The trend certainly isn’t looking favourable,” he said.
Other cities, meanwhile, are nowhere near that total. Vancouver has five, Regina three and Saskatoon one. The City of Toronto, with a population roughly four times that of Edmonton, is at 23. Winnipeg’s crime rate and demographics are often most closely compared with Edmonton, and Manitoba had 15 homicides as of Friday.
Historically, however, Edmonton has always vied for the grim title as the nation’s homicide capital – the highest number of slayings per capita, a title held for the past two years by Abbotsford, British Columbia. Over the past decade, Edmonton has had about 100 more murders than Calgary and about 70 more than Winnipeg, says Bill Pitt, a criminologist at Edmonton’s MacEwan University.
“It has been a bad year, but it has been a bad decade. And this is the exclamation point on the past decade,” Mr. Pitt says. He hosted a crime symposium last month in the city, with representatives from the Edmonton Police Service and Correctional Service of Canada. The mayor and city councillors, however, didn’t respond to an invitation, he said.
“No one showed up,” he said. “This is a massive social problem that requires effective leadership in a way we’ve not seen before.”
He noted that Edmonton has traditionally had bursts of slayings in two categories – domestic disputes, and gang crime. There have been examples of both this year, and the police chief said Friday that the vast majority of the 2011 killings were “known on known.”
“When you start getting both of those, you’re in a bumper crop for murders. And Edmonton’s on tap for that,” Mr. Pitt says.
Edmonton’s demographics make comparisons to other cities difficult, Acting Chief Korol said. He noted the city has a large population of transient workers or the unemployed from the hundreds of remote communities across the north of the province (“They bring in any issues that they have,” he said); is a hub for the drug trade serving the oil sands (“It adds to that volatility, certainly”) and has several jails, which release people from surrounding communities back into Edmonton.
As the Acting Chief sought to assure residents the city is safe, Mr. Pitt said it only takes one stray bullet to kill an innocent bystander. “If there are problems, then that risk of a Jane Creba incident goes up,” he said, referring the high-profile case of a 15-year-old killed in the crossfire of a Toronto shooting on Boxing Day, 2005.
The Edmonton Police Service has reassigned officers from within the department to help cope with the case load, but hasn’t asked for help from other police forces.
Acting Chief Korol stopped short of calling for more social funding, but said the problem is complex.
“I think the answer is much bigger than just police,” he said.
The name and age of the man killed Friday haven’t been released, though he’s believed to be in his 20s. An autopsy, which is expected to confirm gunshots as his cause death, will take place Monday. It was the second homicide of the week; an earlier slaying left a 70-year-old man dead.