The fight over the use of “thin blue line” patches by Calgary Police Service members isn’t about the patches themselves, according to CPS Chief Mark Neufeld. Calgary’s top cop says there’s a lack of trust between the police service and its civilian oversight body, the Calgary Police Commission (CPC).
Neufeld said CPS members have been following social media postings from commissioners, postings that are raising concerns.
“The quantity of anti-police content that’s being posted, shared or liked is really causing concern to the members,” he said Tuesday afternoon, flanked by deputy chiefs Raj Gill and Chad Tawfik. “The feeling of the membership is that there are individual agendas that are being pursued that are maybe overshadowing the larger governance role.
“The effect of all of that is it is eroding trust and confidence in the police service here in the city, which is the exact opposite of what the commission exists to do.”
He said comments from commission members connecting the symbol to white supremacist movements were “the straw that broke the camel’s back” for a police service that already faces low morale and fatigue from the ongoing pandemic and flare-ups of criminal activity.
“Let me be clear: this isn’t about trying to usurp the commission’s direction or retain the symbol. It’s actually about looking at some of the underlying issues.”
In a statement late Tuesday afternoon, CPC chair Shawn Cornett said the commission has heard “clearly” that there is a breakdown in trust between the commission and police.
“The working relationship between the Commission and members of the Service needs to be strong if we are going to maintain the high level of policing we have enjoyed in our community and improve it even further,” Cornett said, adding civilian oversight is a fundamental part of modern democracies.
“We are absolutely going to address the concerns raised by officers during the recent thin blue line discussions.”
Neufeld explicitly said he supports the governance and oversight mandate of the commission.
“The CPC did provide valid policy direction to me, and it’s certainly within their purview to do so, and I certainly acknowledge my responsibility to implement that direction,” the police chief said.
“Their communications did include a date, for sure. It was March 31st, 2022, which no doubt would have set expectations in the minds of many.
“However, the timeline wasn’t a realistic one, given the size and nature of our service.”
Neufeld said he is pausing the implementation timeline for two weeks to have further consultations with his members.
He said he hopes to use respect and compassion to coax voluntary compliance before moving to discipline measures, saying patches would come off “on their own because folks were happy with other changes that had been made.”
The statement from the commission said the directive hasn’t changed, but understands the path to compliance will take some time and wants to work with officers to reach a conclusion that doesn’t require enforcement.
“We knew implementing this decision would be difficult and we are committed to doing so, but we support the Chief giving Calgary Police Service members time to work through it,” Cornett said.
Cornett also said that the commission knows officers wear the symbol to express positive sentiments, but stands by its decision, “aimed at making sure no Calgarian is faced with approaching a police officer that is displaying a symbol connected with other very divisive and racist movements today and in the past.”
Calgary’s police chief said the commission brought up concerns about the use of the thin blue line symbol to him back in March 2021. During that meeting, he committed to have engagement with the community, a process he called “exhaustive.”
Simultaneously, Calgary police’s anti-racism advisory committees members were sharing their perspectives on the symbol that has been carried alongside Confederate flags at protests like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
“We have members of the service who are from racialized communities themselves, as well as civilian members who have come forward saying, ‘This is not representative of what my community thinks of the thin blue line,’” Neufeld said.
“And so it is difficult to try to, I think, reconcile the various different perspectives on it. And I think that’s for us to do here now.”
“We all realize that symbols are powerful and deeply meaningful. The thin blue line symbol has been around for a long time in police culture — not just in Calgary, but globally.”
In its original directive, the police commission pointed to a survey conducted for the Calgary Police Association that found around one in four Calgarians did not respond to the thin blue line patches “either positively or neutrally.”
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Neufeld said for CPS members, the patch represents honouring fallen members, service to the community and supporting one another.
In its March 30 press release, the Calgary Police Commission said it offered to work with the police service, associations and related bodies to create a symbol that would replace the thin blue line while keeping the principles Neufeld outlined on Tuesday. The police chief said that is still a possibility.
“What I’ve heard from some of the stakeholders is that the challenge is that the relationships of trust aren’t there right now, to go down that road.”