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Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson responds to a question during a news conference in Ottawa on Feb. 6, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Alberta’s Justice Minister is warning the mayors of Edmonton and Calgary not to cut law enforcement budgets, suggesting provincial funding could be in jeopardy if they pursue such a strategy.

Kaycee Madu, who became Canada’s first Black justice minister last month, acknowledged there are legitimate complaints about police violence, racism and oversight. But he said those problems cannot be fixed by bending to calls to cut police funding.

Edmonton recently reduced a planned increase to its police budget by $11-million, diverting that money to areas such as crime prevention and housing that could reduce demand on the police department. In Calgary, city council held hearings on systemic racism over the summer and on Thursday heard from the city’s police chief, who agreed that some of the police budget should be reallocated to agencies that would be more appropriate to deal with issues such as mental health or addictions that are often at the root of emergency calls.

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“This is not the time to be taking money away from police resources,” Mr. Madu, who outlined his objections in letters to both mayors this week, said in an interview on Thursday.

“The complaint that I have heard from various segments of our population has to do with police brutality, has to do with carding, racial profiling and street checks, the complaint resolution process. All of this would require resources to tackle, not less.”

Governments have been under public pressure to reform and cut funding to police forces after the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police officers in the spring. Mr. Floyd’s death prompted protests worldwide and galvanized calls for policing reform and oversight, bringing to the forefront cases of police brutality against people of colour in the United States and Canada.

Mr. Madu said the governing United Conservative Party has already devoted resources to tackling those problems, such as creating an associate minister for mental health and addictions, and he said there should be talk about whether more needs to be done.

But he said local governments should not be inflaming tensions by using the language of the defund-the-police movement, and if cities reduce their law enforcement budgets, the Alberta government would need to examine whether they need the tens of millions of dollars the province provides through policing grants every year.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said he agreed that dealing with underlying causes of crime such as mental health and addictions shouldn’t take away resources from policing. But he said the city wouldn’t be having this debate if the province was adequately funding those areas.

“I agree with him, because those are all areas of provincial responsibility that his government should be investing in, and I look forward to him championing those investments,” he said.

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“Activists who say the money should be redeployed, I totally agree. The distinction is that most of the money is in the hands of the province.”

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was not available for an interview.

Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld presented a report on Thursday that proposed shifting resources in the budget to social services and community agencies. The report did not specify how much money should be moved to those areas or precisely how it should be spent.

Chief Neufeld said he agrees it does not make sense to bring the criminal justice system to bear on someone in a mental-health or addictions crisis.

“We’re certainly committed to looking at alternatives that actually would reduce the demand on police," he told city council. “And if we’re not the best agency to delivery that, we’re okay with that."

Still, he cautioned that shifting resources away from police only makes sense if doing so means the force can do less. Cutting the police budget without also reducing demand, he said, would be “untenable.”

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The Opposition NDP’s justice critic, Kathleen Ganley, said it’s inappropriate for the government to threaten municipal funding in response to a serious debate about police reform and resources.

She said the province should be spending more on issues such as affordable housing and social services that can lessen the burden on the police, although she said that is a long-term strategy that won’t affect the work police do immediately.

“You can’t take the money out of policing and then put it into social services, wait a while for those programs to spin up and expect that to be a workable solution,” she said.

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