EDMONTON - Edmonton's police chief wants the provincial government to consider changing the way it distributes social assistance cheques to help reduce crime against the poor and the handicapped, especially in the inner city.
The government distributes more than 80,000 cheques on one specific day each month to people across the province who are on income support programs. About three-quarters of those cheques are directly deposited to bank accounts, but others are mailed out and must be cashed.
Chief Rod Knecht said this leads to criminals gathering on "cheque day" to prey on the weak and vulnerable such as those with mental health and addictions problems.
"We are talking with the government right now around: 'Could we split those up, so we are issuing them to different people twice a month as opposed to once a month, or sporadically, so the predators won't converge ... and victimize these people over and over again?'" Knecht said.
"Some people who are mentally challenged, the bad guys take them to one of these quick cheque-cashing places, getting them to cash the cheque and then taking the money away from them."
Knecht said some people are so frightened of being robbed that they spend their entire social assistance cheques in just a few days.
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Jennifer Dagsvik, a spokeswoman for Alberta Human Services, said staff "strongly advise" people to have their cheques directly deposited to a bank account, but she acknowledges that option doesn't work for everyone.
Dale Beesley, executive director of the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program, said the chief's proposal wouldn't work in the short term due to limitations of computers used to manage cheque distribution.
Beesley said the idea will be considered when the computer program is upgraded in the future.
In the meantime, he said, the government will continue working with some clients with mental health and addictions problems to help ensure that monthly cheques cover basic needs. In some cases, a portion can be directly diverted to cover rent and utility bills.
"It would be something that could help. But I think the better strategy is to have better information protocols and use those other safeguards up front with clients to provide them with options to make sure that they are spending the money on what it is intended for."
Knecht said changing the way cheques are distributed would not only help reduce crime, it would have the added benefit of freeing up officers to investigate other cases.
The chief said Edmonton police responded to 6,752 more service calls in 2013 than the previous year and he expects the trend to continue in 2014 as the city's population grows and more transients drift in and out of the community.
The police service is already hard-pressed to meet its goal of quickly responding to priority calls involving death or serious injury in the city within seven minutes, he said.
Effective policing goes hand in hand with the prudent use of limited resources, he said.
"We have to find efficiencies. The status quo won't do it anymore."