Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld is standing by the officer who embraced an anti-mask protester at a protest at Chinook Centre in mid-February.
But the CPS chief said Tuesday that he and police know such images can be damaging to their reputation.
“Photographs and videos like the one that was posted from the protest last week can understandably create an impression that CPS is somehow aligned with or are supportive of the positions or the ideologies connected to one or more of these individuals,” Neufeld told the Calgary Police Commission. “Let me assure you, that is not the case.”
On Tuesday, Neufeld said police knew the organizers of that event had links to far-right groups and have “expressed or been linked to racism, prejudice and other forms of intolerance.”
The officer captured in the video talking to and then embracing the protester is a member of the CPS diversity resources team and an officer commission chair Bonita Croft called a “lightning rod for criticism.”
Neufeld said members of that team often try to build rapport with protesters at any of the nearly 600 protests CPS has attended since 2015. With a relationship established, CPS officers can de-escalate situations.
“These relationships have been immensely helpful in the planning and execution of these events, regardless of the subject matter,” Neufeld said.
Read more: Protesters gather from across the province at Alberta legislature to fight COVID-19 health measures
The CPS chief said the protests surrounding anti-racism, Black Lives Matter, anti-mask and so-called anti-lockdown have all presented learning opportunities for officers, and they have been refining their approaches after each one.
But Neufeld did admit that the recent march with tiki torches — a symbol associated with racist and white nationalist movements including at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va. — through downtown Edmonton was an escalation of rhetoric used by those groups.
“It seems like the ante is being upped.”
The prospect of similar marches happening in Calgary on Saturday concerns anti-racism activist Taylor McNallie. She condemned the police building relationships with individuals with connections to racist and far-right groups through acts like an embrace.
“These images are extremely concerning to racialized and marginalized members of our community because we see the act of acceleration isn’t happening in real time, while law enforcement allows it to happen to the point where they are hugging these people in public,” McNallie told the commission.
“Hugging a racialized person during a march where they are fighting for justice is not the same as hugging a person who is marching against the rights of that same person, that same racialized person.”
Police commissioner and Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra, who tweeted that the officer’s actions were “not a good look,” offered an apology for the perception that his criticism was on behalf of the commission.
He said he tweeted his opinion of the events as an elected official, and said that the city and police have an obligation to follow through on their anti-racist declaration and policies.
“It is not unfair to explicitly address that race as a component of this discussion,” Carra told the commission. “And I believe it is essential for those who want to be allies to BIPOC Calgarians, one-third of our population, to acknowledge and validate the disappointment that many Calgarians feel when seeing a police officer hug a leading member of this group.”
Adam Massiah, leader of the United Black People’s Allyship, questioned the police tactic of using bicycles to separate clashing factions at protests.
“It seems as if when these white supremacists, freedom marchers, end up showing up at these protests, the police line is (formed) where the officers have their bikes, protecting them as if they’re defending them from counter protesters,” Massiah said. “But when the opposite is happening or even at the Black Lives Matter rally at city hall, when the Proud Boys showed up, the police did the same thing.”
Neufeld wouldn’t get into police tactics during the meeting, but did recognize the impression the use of those tactics left.
“From a very practical standpoint, I think officers in those type of situations are basically using formations that keep people apart,” Neufeld said. “But if in the process they’re giving the impression that they’re sort of partial to one or the other, that certainly that certainly wouldn’t be the case.”
Neufeld said CPS was meeting with the Edmonton Police Service on Wednesday following the now-infamous tiki torch march and rally in Alberta’s capital. He said messaging to officers who attend Saturday’s march at city hall will be informed by that meeting.
The CPS chief said the top concern for officers at rallies is keeping themselves and members of the public safe during “very complex situations.”
“We’re trying to not pay too much attention to the loudest calls on both sides,” he said. “We’re basically trying to manage the situation in the moment, the very best that we can.”
Calgary’s top cop had a message for those planning on attending upcoming anti-lockdown rallies.
“I would just hope that folks that are participating in these marches give some thought to some of the symbolism of some of the tactics … that we’ve seen,” Neufeld said. “Maybe people who don’t appreciate what they’re part of here can take a step back and just recognize the impact they’re having on the broader community.”