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Use-of-force incidents involving Calgary Transit peace officers nearly doubled in 2021

Filee photo. Getty Images

New information presented to city council shows a sharp rise in how often Calgary Transit peace officers have used force, with such incidents nearly doubling in 2021.

According to the Calgary Transit public safety citizen oversight committee, transit peace officers were involved in 819 use-of-force incidents in 2021 compared to 448 in 2020.

The report presented to council said the level of force used was “typically very low,” and was described as normally involving a “soft, empty-hand” technique in which peace officers escorted somebody off a Calgary Transit property.

“Use-of-force basically is soft-handed techniques, which would be touching someone and saying, ‘Please move along. You’ll have to leave the property. You’re trespassing, etc,'” Calgary Transit Public Safety Citizen Oversight Committee chair Peter Copple told council.

“A more heavy use of force would be handcuffing someone, putting them down.”

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According to Copple, the more serious use-of-force incidents are investigated by Calgary Transit’s Officer Safety Incident Review Team (OSIRT).

“In other words, if the person goes down, that would automatically trigger an OSIRT review,” he said.

But the number of serious use-of-force incidents that met the threshold to be reviewed by OSIRT remained similar between 2021 and 2020.

OSIRT reviewed 115 use-of-force incidents in 2020 and 111 incidents in 2021.

Council documents show those incidents included hard, empty-hand techniques like strikes, the use of intermediate weapons like a baton or leg restraints and incidents where peace officers were injured.

“I think that’s a really important clarification, especially when we look at the numbers, to understand it’s a wide range of what that means when we say use of force,” said Ward 11 councillor Kourtney Penner.

Transit peace officers also receive a debriefing of each incident reviewed as part of their ongoing training and development, the report said.

According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis have factored heavily into the increase in use-of-force incidents.

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“A number of those cases involved either inebriation, incapacitation due to controlled substances — also mental health issues. The officers are very aware of that,” Copple said.

“That comes out in the OSIRT debriefings where the officers are reviewing what has gone on, what were the threat cues that arised, was their response appropriate and proportionate to the issue that was there.”

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According to Copple, Calgary Transit has an “excellent relationship” with community partners like Alpha House in situations involving the city’s vulnerable population, and officers are working to stay “well-informed” on the issue.

“I don’t think it was much of a surprise to council or to citizens,” said Ward 3 councillor Jasmine Mian.

“We know that there are some challenges with addictions and mental health and transit right now, and so seeing the numbers being higher I think shows that transit officers are out there doing their job.”

The Calgary Transit public safety citizen oversight committee brought forward several recommendations to improve use-of-force investigations, including:

  • Creating a disciplinary matrix which will include tracking past disciplinary action imposed to “ensure consistency in recommendations.”
  • Tracking of race-based data in all cases.
  • The preparation of a detailed list of evidence required to be submitted in all cases to “ensure committee members have considered all evidence on a file before making recommendations.”

The committee also recommended extending its oversight to all peace officers employed by the City of Calgary, following a reorganization by administration.

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The recommendations also include expanding the committee’s mandate to review all public complaint and employer-initiated complaint investigations under the Peace Officer Act, not just use-of-force complaints.

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