Conversations between the Calgary police and its civilian oversight body are underway around the impasse over police wearing the ‘thin blue line.’
CPS Chief Mark Neufeld was optimistic they would find a resolution, calling it a “significant conflict.”
“But everybody is willing to come to the table to try to identify the issues and work through them,” the police chief told media following the public portion of Wednesday’s Calgary Police Commission meeting.
Commission chair Shawn Cornett said CPS executive and the commission will try to understand where trust was lost between the two organizations.
“Those conversations will start immediately, including later this evening when we go in camera,” Cornett said.
She said the commission still trusts police.
“(The ‘thin blue line’) decision was not an expression of non-confidence in the members of the Calgary Police Service,” she said.
“The commission and the community value of those who serve and strongly support the desire to visually honour fallen officers and recognize the sacrifices made by those who serve and their families.”
Noting the commission is an extension of Calgary’s elected government and with powers enshrined by the provincial legislation, Cornett said the fact officers are ignoring a “lawful direction” wasn’t lost on the police commission.
“It’s concerning that Calgary police officers consider it acceptable to ignore lawful direction they personally disagree with, but it is even more concerning that senior officers in the organization are encouraging and participating in this behaviour,” Cornett said.
“There will have to be accountability for undermining the lawful chain of command if this continues.”
Shortly after the direction to remove the symbol from police uniforms, the Calgary Police Association (CPA) distributed “countless” patches and pins.
CPA president John Orr told the commission the encouragement to keep wearing it was not done “lightly.”
“To disregard a direction from a superior officer is an extremely rare and uncomfortable step to take, but it’s one our members felt they needed to do to take a stand in this case,” Orr said.
“When unfounded, politically-motivated attacks come at our officers and our profession from leaders in their community, it is too much.”
Neufeld said he heard opinions from police that the thin blue line is being used for division, the latest in a series of “attacks” on policing.
“They just think that the attacks keep coming and now today it’s this. And then what’s next? Right? And then what’s after that? And if they’re going to have to stand up somewhere, then why not now?”
The police chief said the two-week delay on implementing the commission’s directive was intended to be a “cooling-off” period, and Cornett said the chief and CPS executive need to be allowed some grace.
The commission chair noted the patches and pins have been removed from police services in Edmonton, Victoria, Ottawa, Toronto, St. John and the RCMP, adding that Saskatoon is considering what to do with the symbol.
A decision a long time in the making
She also said the conversations around the ‘thin blue line’ have not been rushed.
“Neither the leadership of the service nor the police associations were surprised by the commission’s decision,” Cornett said.
“We made it clear last fall, after considering the information submitted by the service, that we were not supportive of the ‘thin blue line’ part being permitted on police uniforms.”
Neufeld told media that CPS members are aware of the association the ‘thin blue line’ has with racist and white supremacist movements, especially in recent years in the United States. But he contended that the policing system differs north of the border.
“Some of the members have a hard time accepting that that should transfer directly on to that,” Neufeld said, pointing to the generally-positive on-the-ground interactions CPS officers have in Calgary while wearing the patch.
“But when we talk about a commercially available symbol, there is a risk that certainly anybody can get it and anybody can use it however they want to.”
Cornett recognized and supported the desire of police to “visually honour fallen officers and recognize the sacrifices made by those who serve and their families.”
On Thursday, Neufeld said CPS members were “incensed” by the direction to remove the patches, and that social media posts made by some commissioners led them to believe “personal agendas” were influencing commission decisions.
Cornett clarified that while commission members each bring their own opinions, experiences and expertise to the table, decisions made by the 12-member body are considered thoroughly.
“It’s essentially a collaborative, democratic process and brings all of the opinions to bear of all of the various members of the commission,” the chair said.
Neufeld pushed back on the idea that CPS is monitoring commissioners’ social media accounts, instead saying “people are paying attention and that’s causing issues inside the service, and that relates to people’s morale and the trust and confidence that they have in the commission.”
Cornett acknowledged the public nature of social media, saying the commission will be looking at their own communication policies in the coming weeks.
Seeking common ground
Lisa Silver, who served on the Calgary Police Commision between 2012 and 2018, said there needs to be a “full and frank discussion” with the entire service — civilian and sworn members — to find “common ground.”
“Finding that common ground is crucial,” Silver said in an interview with Global News.
Silver, a law professor at the University of Calgary, said the commission is under the municipal government’s auspices, but is also an arms-length body providing police oversight and governance.
“In essence, they are partners with the police. Now they do provide that oversight piece, but that is to ensure that the police are responsive to the public, that there’s public confidence in the police,” she said.
“(The police commission is) not there to increase conflict. It’s there to actually enhance relationships in the community, to be that buffer between the politicians and the police.”
Cornett reiterated the police oversight body’s dedication to work with police on issues beyond the ‘thin blue line.’
“Our commission is committed to seeing this decision through, but we are also focused on dealing with severe staffing shortages on the front line, ensuring safety in Calgary’s transforming downtown and moving forward with the many needed reforms and improvements underway at the Calgary Police Service.”