While Alberta grapples with a public-health crisis from fentanyl overdoses, the province-wide police agency at the forefront of the battle against the deadly drug is now preparing to lose more than a quarter of its officers because of budget cuts.
The Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams, known as ALERT, is a specialized law enforcement agency that targets gangs, drugs, domestic violence and human trafficking. The unit seized 18,010 fentanyl pills and charged 503 members of organized crime last year.
Created with the help of a $42.2-million grant from the federal government that expired in 2014, ALERT has seen provincial funding fall by one-third over the past three years.
The policing unit has warned the Alberta government that unless the budget reductions are reversed, the agency will need to cut 70 of its 268 positions next year. The unit's budget was $47.2-million last year, $31-million of which came from Alberta . Most of the shortfall was covered by the last of its federal funds.
The cuts could have serious consequences at a time when ALERT has been one of the leading agencies in a province confronting fentanyl, a powerful opioid that has been responsible for 213 deaths over the first nine months of 2015.
"We're preparing for the cuts. It'll have an impact on all of our areas of operation," said ALERT spokesman Mike Tucker. The nine-year-old agency has already left some positions empty as it has started to run out of money.
Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said that following an audit of the policing unit, her office is engaged in a conversation about whether her ministry will continue to fund ALERT. She promised that a decision about the future level of provincial funding, if any, "would come in the normal course of budgeting."
Speaking in the provincial legislature, the minister tried to play down the risk of 70 officers being cut at the policing agency. "I don't think we're in a position where that's what the outcome will be," she said. "ALERT is made up of specialized teams, so it kind of depends on how that plays out."
With officers seconded from the RCMP and five of Alberta's largest police forces, ALERT is divided into teams that target organized crime, child exploitation, illegal activities in communities and domestic violence.
Cuts to any of those teams could have tragic consequences ranging from more guns on the streets to more drug deaths, according to William Pitt, a former RCMP officer and former criminology professor at the University of Alberta.
"The timing couldn't be worse. You're going to have more people dying from fentanyl," Mr. Pitt said. "This is a big mistake, a bonanza. It's a signal that organized crime can entrench itself because law enforcement is pulling back."
Edmonton police Deputy Chief Brian Simpson said that a decrease in ALERT's operations would leave a gap in the policing of Alberta's capital city and could worsen a situation in which violent crime is up 12 per cent compared with last year.
"The work isn't going away. We are seeing a significant increase in the crime issues we are dealing with. A change, in terms of resources, will exacerbate that problem," Deputy Chief Simpson said.
While combatting a spike in property and violent crime, as well as fentanyl deaths, Edmonton's police force has had to stretch resources and create a counter-terrorism unit over the past year. That has led to a policing strategy that Deputy Chief Simpson warned is now "reactive."
A $400-million federal Police Officer Recruitment Fund was established in 2008 as part of the then-Conservative government's crime agenda. The fund was meant to add 2,500 police officers across Canada and led to the creation of a number of specialized units, including ALERT and the Éclipse anti-gang unit in Montreal.
The expiration of that fund became a campaign issue during this year's federal election. In August, before he was elected Prime Minister, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he approved of a proposal by the federal NDP to create a new $250-million recruitment fund over four years, followed by $100-million in annual funding.
Officials from the federal Department of Public Safety could not respond to questions on Wednesday about whether Mr. Trudeau still intended to create the fund.