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Alberta plans to increase the number of sheriffs it employs by at least 20 per cent in the coming year, a decision urban and rural municipal leaders believe could serve as the foundation for a provincial police service, despite government denials that is what they are planning.

The United Conservative Party did not earmark any money for a new provincial police organization in its 2023-2024 budget, but it did increase the amount allocated to the Alberta Sheriffs by 40 per cent. Last week, Finance Minister Travis Toews told a business audience in Calgary that the budget would “immediately” result in 235 new sheriffs for rural and urban communities.

By expanding and injecting millions into the sheriffs – a provincially run law-enforcement branch that handles a wide variety of duties from courthouse safety to traffic violations to fish and wildlife investigations – the government is further empowering these officers, saying that it is addressing concerns over safety and crime.

Paul McLauchlin, Ponoka County’s reeve and president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, argued the UCP is beefing up the sheriffs branch as a backdoor way of establishing a provincial police service.

“It would be ridiculous for us to not think this is just a subversive way to point in the direction of a provincial police force,” he said in an interview. “I’d be dim if I didn’t clue into that.”

Premier Danielle Smith in November instructed cabinet ministers, specifically Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis, to launch an Alberta Police Service to replace the RCMP, but the UCP has yet to win over those opposed – among the public and among municipalities – to ditching the Mounties as the spring election approaches.

Meanwhile, the UCP in February deployed two dozen sheriffs in Calgary and Edmonton, which have their own police services with civilian oversight, in the name of reigning in social disorder and helping those struggling with addictions. Those pilot projects are scheduled to end in May, just as voters go to the polls.

When asked at a news conference Wednesday whether the boost to the sheriffs branch really was a way to create a provincial police force, Mr. Ellis refuted the suggestion, saying the government was discussing with some municipalities alternatives to the RCMP.

“I reject that. It’s not a backdoor police service. Under the current model, we are trying to supplement the supports for the current deployment model for the RCMP,” he said.

“Our position has not changed. There’s no decision that has been made regarding a provincial police service. We’re exploring all the options that are available. We’re consulting with municipalities. In fact, it’s really about empowering those municipalities.”

Mr. Ellis said the government has talked to about a dozen municipalities, and that the additional sheriffs will help with the “stress” out in the field right now.

“I do not care what uniform somebody is wearing. When somebody calls 911, I have an expectation regarding public safety that an officer shows up,” he said. “So, if that’s an RCMP officer, that’s wonderful. If it is a sheriff that shows up, that is also acceptable.”

The government set aside $132-million for the Alberta Sheriffs in the 2023-2024 budget, up 21 per cent from the $108.8-million the branch expects to spend in the fiscal year ending March 31, and 40 per cent over the $94.8-million originally budgeted for 2022-2023.

(The sheriffs fall under the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Services, which has a budget of $1.1-billion for the next fiscal year, up $135-million, or 13 per cent, from the $972-million the department expects to spend in the year ending March 31. The ministry was originally allocated $922-million for 2022-2023.)

Dylan Topal, a spokesman for the Public Safety Department, said the budget increase contains $26.3-million in new funding for sheriffs, which will “support the addition” of between 235 and 245 new sheriffs.

Alberta expects to have the equivalent of 1,164 full-time sheriffs in 2023-2024, Mr. Topal said. This is an increase of 190 sheriffs, or 19.5 per cent, from the 974 full-time equivalent positions he said the branch had in 2022-2023. If Alberta added 235 sheriffs to its 2022-2023 roster, the branch would grow by 24 per cent.

Cathy Heron, the mayor of St. Albert and president of Alberta Municipalities, said the need for additional sheriffs in Alberta is “obvious,” especially if the new uniforms will be deployed in some of the province’s more remote areas.

Ms. Heron noted the Premier made it clear she favoured a provincial organization while campaigning for the UCP’s top job. Ms. Heron speculated the UCP wanted to avoid making the formation of a provincial service an election issue.

“If their intention is to move forward after the election, this would be a step in the direction of a provincial police [service],” she said. “Almost like getting ahead of the game on recruitment.”

The government has not detailed what the new sheriffs will do, however the budget contains an additional $1.7-million to increase surveillance in rural communities by expanding the Sheriffs Investigative Unit, and $2-million to establish a Fugitive Apprehension Sheriff Support Team to locate and remand people considered a threat to public safety.

The violent crime rate in Alberta clocked in at 1,499 for every 100,000 people in 2021, according to the performance metrics in the most recent budget. This compares to 1,428 in 2020 and 1,461 in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic took hold. The rate of property crime, meanwhile, dropped to 4,567 per 100,000 residents in 2021 from 5,032 in 2020 and 5,886 in 2019, the budget said.

There are five types of sheriffs in the province: courts and legislature, who transport inmates and ensure the safety of those in courthouses and the legislature; communications, who track sheriff units, monitor surveillance equipment and inform response agencies when emergencies hit; surveillance, who gather evidence of criminal activity and investigate specific property-related complaints; traffic, who enforce traffic safety laws, investigate collisions and conduct commercial vehicle inspections; and fish and wildlife officers.