2021 saw another year of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, protests and frustrations. Calgary police chief Mark Neufeld sat down with Global News for a look back at another eventful year in policing in the city and around the world.
Sgt. Andrew Harnett’s death:
2021 started in a most devastating way for the Calgary Police Service. One of its own had been killed on New Year’s eve, less than an hour before 2020 came to an end.
“I think everybody was sort of done with 2020, and with just minutes left, 2020 had one more surprise for us, and that was the murder of Sgt. Andrew Harnett,” Neufeld said. “It was shocking, devastating for his family, for the organization and the community.”
Harnett was killed in a hit and run on Dec. 31, 2020 after he tried to stop an SUV that had a licence plate that did not match the vehicle’s registration. Harnett was struck by the vehicle and dragged before he fell and was struck by another vehicle.
Two people were charged in his death. One has since pleaded guilty to manslaughter and the other faces a court date in early 2022.
“Nothing will bring Andrew back to his family. Nothing will bring Andrew back to us.” Neufeld said, adding that he does want to see some justice.
“I’m mindful that nobody probably went out that evening thinking that they were going to get involved in an altercation that would cause somebody their life, but it happened. So, there needs to be accountability for that. I feel strongly about that.”
Neufeld hopes he and his members, and Harnett’s family, can find a way to move forward in “a healthy way.”
Guns, gangs and drugs:
As of Dec. 22, 2021, there were 19 homicides in Calgary so far this year, 12 of which have been resolved by homicide detectives. That number is actually down from the city average of 24 per year.
Also down is the number of shootings in Calgary.
“Up until the end of November, we were sitting at about 92 shootings, which is down 11 per cent for us here in Calgary, which is good,” Neufeld said.
“We still have major city drug problems, we still have major city organized crime problems, but I think it’s been a bit less obvious. I think the pandemic has changed the landscape a bit. We continue to monitor to see — as we come out of the pandemic, whenever that’s going to be — whether things sort of revert back to the way they were previously or whether actually we move into a new environment based on what we’re seeing now, and that’s still an open question.”
On the opioid epidemic, Neufeld says it’s still a huge issue, but he’s optimistic that new measures introduced by the UCP government will help.
“As part of the virtual opioid dependency program, we’ll actually be administering sublocade to individuals in our cells, if a doctor thinks that that’s the appropriate action.”
Neufeld said he hopes programs like these will expand to places like the drop-in centre to help with prevention.
Vaccines and anti-vaccine rallies:
2021 was the year of the COVID-19 vaccine, which means it was also the year of the anti-vaccine movement. There were several anti-mask, anti-vaccine rallies in Calgary this year. There have also been some internal issues within CPS regarding members not wanting to get vaccinated.
“Externally, everybody was hoping that there would be vaccines developed quickly to combat COVID-19, and then when they were, I think it might have been a bit surprising that there were individuals who were quite resistant to it,” Neufeld said.
“Our members have been out at the protests and demonstrations. This has been going on for the better part of two years. Most weekends we end up having to send people out to protests and demonstrations. Some of those demonstrations have been very, very difficult. They have been a little bit nasty.”
Neufeld said enforcing pandemic restrictions and dealing with protesters has been a no-win situation for CPS members.
“You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Some people think you don’t do enough, some people think that anything you do is too much, and so it’s just that type of an environment.”
The CPS has come under a bit of fire, most notably from Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, for its vaccine policy within the force.
Neufeld said over 90 per cent of its members are vaccinated, but there are some who don’t want to get vaccinated and he is trying to respect their decision.
“We’re really trying to treat our folks with respect around this. We don’t have to look very far to find misinformation and disinformation and conflicting information about vaccines and safety and that sort of thing. So, we’re taking further and additional steps to help people to answer questions about everything from myocarditis to fertility to how long have they been in development to get people to where they need to be, and not try to paint people into a corner and push them out the door.”
Neufeld says there’s a six-figure investment in members by the time they are recruited and trained.
“We’ve also been dealing with labor shortages across all public and private sectors, and so to go and create ourselves our own problem, such that we’re having difficulty delivering services to Calgarians is not the way to go. So although not everybody agrees with our vaccination policy, we do offer the rapid testing option. We’re confident that the officers we send to your door and into the community are safe.”
Mental health calls to the CPS are up 30 per cent in 2021, compared to the five-year average.
Neufeld said his members have been going to homes they didn’t go to before, where people who, pre-pandemic, were able to manage their stress are no longer able to. He has also seen an increase in the number of people out on the street dealing with mental health issues, due to overcrowding of shelters and COVID capacity protocols.
“We continue to experiment with opportunities to have other agencies to be able to become involved. I think there are some exciting things on the horizon in terms of that type of work going on,” he said.
“We appreciate how people’s lives have been upended, both personally and professionally, and so the members are taking a very compassionate approach to these types of calls and trying to get people connected to services. I think we’re very fortunate in Calgary to have as many services as we do.”
Assaults against police officers reached a five-year high in 2021. Neufeld said they average one per day.
“Some of these assaults are basically resistance to being arrested. Then other times we’ve seen people that actually openly want to physically engage police officers, and I feel that some of that derives from some of the negative commentary that’s gone on around policing for the last couple of years. So you have people who think it’s OK to abuse police officers, and obviously that’s not the case.”
Neufeld said it’s been a tougher time to be a police officer and notes the one-assault-against-an-officer per day average does not include all the undocumented interactions with people.
“The other types of negative commentary about ‘Nazis’ and ‘pigs’ and ‘all cops are bastards’ and all of these things that we hear these days — there seems to be the ability for someone to dehumanize police officers because they’re in uniform, and maybe forget that these are actually moms and dads and soccer coaches and your neighbour.”
A CPS engagement survey for 2021 revealed workplace morale at historically low levels within the CPS.
Neufeld believes there are many factors that go into that, including the pandemic and a staff shortage.
“I think people are feeling the crush of additional work and workloads and the challenges out there at the same time as their personal lives have been upended.”
When asked what it’s like to be the leader of an organization with low morale, Neufeld said it has been very difficult.
“I’m totally committed to the good men and women that work for the Calgary Police Service and to this community, and to the organization. I try to maintain a balance and realize that we’re in a difficult time and this is a marathon and not a sprint, but it’s hard sometimes. I know that our folks are struggling and I feel that. I feel the weight of that as the leader of the organization.”
Neufeld said he wants to get back to the basics of policing and try to ignore all the politics and distractions that surround the force.
“I want to restore the pride in being a police officer here in Calgary and the profession generally. I think part of the way we do that is just unapologetically be the police.”
Ever since the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, calls got louder for the CPS to do more work on anti-racism. Neufeld said they are working hard in that area, but acknowledges that becoming an anti-racist city and organization is long-term process.
Neufeld said the CPS has create anti-racism committees internally and externally, and is utilizing its diversity advisory boards. He also wants to collect more race-based data.
“I can tell you that other countries have been way out ahead of us with respect to that. I think good data and information actually informs good public policy. That’s been a bit of a dark spot for us, frankly. We haven’t had that data to look at.”
Neufeld said Calgary police are committed to equity, diversity and inclusion work and will continue to push forward.
“There are conversations that go on in our organization today that didn’t go on two years ago, and I think that’s really, really important.”
Looking forward to 2022:
Neufeld looks ahead to 2022 with optimism, despite knowing there are more challenges ahead.
He looks forward to hiring more resources, thanks to a bump in budget from city council for 2022. Anti-racism work, tackling the increase in hate crimes and staying on top of the gang violence and drug issues in the city are also priorities.
Neufeld is also focusing on recruiting.
“If you know of anybody that’s looking for a great organization to work with, point them my way.”