Calgary

Overworked and ignored, front-line Calgary police describe an organization in crisis

Some front-line Calgary police officers who say they are overworked, demoralized and ignored by out-of-touch executive officers and their own union.

Officers want to see current executive removed and worry about a 'mutiny' if new chief is an insider

Patrol officers spoke to the media because they feel the system is broken. This is a stock photo and is not of an officer who came forward. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Words like "crisis," "broken" and "mutiny" are on the lips of some front-line Calgary police officers who say they are overworked, demoralized and ignored by out-of-touch executive officers and their own union.

They want a purge at the top of the Calgary Police Service and an honest conversation about how to fix a work culture on the verge of what some describe as a breakdown.

CBC News spoke to multiple front-line officers who spoke on the condition of confidentiality due to fears of repercussions.

Everyone CBC News spoke to — some of whom were approached in public without warning and did not agree to be interviewed — said speaking to reporters was "career limiting."

Some expressed dismay that instead of focusing on why officers were coming forward, there was already a concerted effort to track down those who were willing to speak.

Throughout it all, their concerns followed a common thread.

Overworked and understaffed

One constable said it all boils down to inadequate staffing levels. He recalls times, especially on the night shift, when there have been only three officers on duty — including the staff sergeant — to protect 200,000 people in one of the city's eight districts.

The constable said that isn't fair to Calgarians.

"It causes problems, too, for safety for the members. You literally get calls where you get a domestic, for example, where someone has fled and you now have one car there," he said.

He said the anxiety, or even depression, will kick in at the start of a shift when it becomes clear just how many patrol officers will be working on your line.

"You literally sit down and there could be four of you, or 12 of you," he said.

"If you see there's four … you know it's going to be a stressful day."

You literally get calls where you get a domestic, for example, where someone has fled and you now have one car there."- Calgary police officer

Staffing, he said, is not a new issue, but the city has grown in population and size, and members' paperwork has become more complex — each call is more demanding than it was 10 years ago. But, he said, the number of people patrolling city streets hasn't changed.

Yet according to the CPS, the number of positions on the front line has grown from 1,115 in 2009 to 1,224 in 2018, noting that those numbers don't include people away on leave, secondments or accommodations. And CPS said sometimes resources are moved around to keep up with the latest trends, so the actual numbers can fluctuate daily.

Still, that bump in strength, spread across the city, and throughout different shifts, is not being felt. Officers who spoke to CBC News said those figures don't reflect the reality on the ground. Some said about 100 members are "accommodated," meaning they don't work certain shifts like nights.

Too busy to deal with incidents

One officer said he doesn't like to admit it but on some busy nights he knows he's let the public down.

He uses a domestic call as an example.

"I know some that I have gone to where I could have spent probably an extra 30 minutes and made sure this didn't happen again, or come up with a solution between the two of them where it stays peaceful. But I didn't have time so I'm like, 'I'm out. See you. Sorry, we're busy.'"

No one said they were turning a blind eye to crime — "you have to deal with what's in front of you," one said — but small offences weren't always pursued and proper investigations are difficult, if done at all. The focus is on clearing files, not solving the crimes, according to one officer.

"It's very demoralizing for the guys on the front line to have to go to a lady's house who's been broken into, two days after it happens, because we couldn't get there before," said another officer.

Former Calgary police Chief Roger Chaffin left just three years into his contract. (CBC)

Still another officer said working for extended periods of time leads to exhaustion and burnout.

"I've done so many employee surveys and nothing ever changes," she said.

The $20.8-million budget increase approved by council last year after then-chief Roger Chaffin painted a bleak picture of overworked officers hasn't translated to relief on the street.

Chaffin announced his resignation this July, just three years into his time as chief. 

'They've lost the trust of the front line'

A front-line officer with more than a decade of experience on the street said he's not interested in pointing fingers and isn't convinced the problems in the service stem from malice.

"We're not laying blame, we're asking for help because things are dire," he said.

But all of the officers CBC News spoke with said there needs to be a wholesale clearance of the executive officers in the service. One went so far as to suggest there would be a "mutiny" should a new chief be plucked from the current executive.

We're not laying blame, we're asking for help because things are dire.- Calgary police officer

"Culturally in the service, there's absolutely no confidence whatsoever in our executive officers. They've lost the trust of the front line," said another experienced officer.

The general consensus is that the executive officers are out of touch with the realities on the street and are too focused on protecting their own little empires — silos, they're called — and the officers attached to them. What they're not doing, critics say, is looking at what's best for the organization as a whole.

They don't listen and they're not prepared to admit when their decisions cause harm and reverse course.

"So when you have deputy chief saying 'well, when I was a constable we used to do it this way and that's the way you're going to do it' — yeah, that was 30 years ago in a very different city," said one officer. "So, I don't know, I just think there's a big disconnect between the executive officers and the street."

The chief, they say, is too far removed from the constables on the ground, and those who report to the chief are too busy playing politics.

Complaints against police union 

In addition to the executives, front-line workers say their union, the Calgary Police Association, isn't looking out for their interests, either.

"[CPA president Les] Kaminski only represents his friends, so I think we just need people to sit down and honestly have some conversations, find a problem, find a solution, implement and move on to the next one instead of protecting empires," said one officer.

"He's another silo. Each deputy has their silo, has their hang-arounds and the people they're trying to promote and they fight amongst themselves. It's ugly to watch. Nobody's trying to do the right thing. Everyone's trying to protect their career or their empire."

Another said Kaminski is on a "personal vendetta" against the executive and police commission and doesn't represent the views of patrol officers.

They say he's too focused on the issue of tenure, where officers are moved out of specialty units like gang suppression — where Kaminski used to work — and returned to the streets, rather than remaining in the units. 

Jyoti Gondek, the Ward 3 city councillor who sits on the Calgary Police Commission, said they are aware of the problems being raised by patrol officers but they have to walk a fine line while dealing with the concerns.

Calgary Police Association president Les Kaminski, right, has butted heads with Calgary Police Commission chair Brian Thiessen, left. He has called for Thiessen's resignation. (CBC)

She said the only employee who reports to the commission is the chief.

"So what we try to do is ensure that the performance plan and expectations that we develop for the chief of police is something that then filters down to the people that report up to him or her in the future," said Gondek.

"We have to be careful that we're not getting involved in operations when our job is oversight."

She said the established way for officer concerns to come to the commission is through the CPA.

"I really need the Calgary Police Association to step up and start advocating for its membership as well," said Gondek.

I really need the Calgary Police Association to step up and start advocating for its membership as well.- Coun . Jyoti   Gondek

That sort of criticism rankles Kaminski. He said he's aware of the issues facing patrol and has been "relentless" in bringing those concerns forward, first to the executive and then to the commission.

He said the CPA's voice is also being ignored.

Kaminski said there are problems within the executive but he directs most of his ire at the commission.

"When a patrol member messes up and what they do doesn't work, they're held to account. Well, when executive messes up, the commission needs to step up and hold them to account," he said.  

"That hasn't happened. They have been cheerleading, that's what happened."

The Code 200 campaign

It's a bleak scenario supported by employee surveys within the service that show morale is low and frustration is mounting.

Last year, 37 per cent said they disagreed with the statement they were proud to work at CPS. That's a jump of 13 percentage points from the year before.

One officer said some members are so desperate for change they initiated a wristband campaign, called Code 200, which is the CPS code for an officer in trouble.

He said it's a grassroots movement and not associated with the CPA.

"A group of us decided that we needed to do something that speaks for the street, that doesn't have a name to it, so not a member in particular, it's just common issues that everyone goes through."

The Code 200 campaign encourages members to wear black rubber bracelets with "CPS" and "Code 200" written in red lettering to support the front-line workers and their struggles. There is also a GoFundMe page to raise money for the campaign.

"It is a good time to voice our opinion because once the new chief is in, then the opinion is maybe he can fix it, maybe he can't, but at least he knows what he's coming into," said one officer.

This pamphlet explains that the Code 200 campaign highlights poor working conditions and inadequate staffing. (Submitted)

Another officer from a specialty unit calls the campaign a cry for help, and he hopes the executive listens to their concerns rather than trying to track down the source of the campaign to quash it.

"For guys to go outside to wear a bracelet of support shows how fractured everything is," he said.

One of the people behind the campaign said they checked with CPS and there is no policy against wearing bracelets.

For guys to go outside to wear a bracelet of support shows how fractured everything is.- Calgary police officer

"Probably by Monday it will be changed," he added.

Still, he fears getting caught, even though he said the campaign was never meant to be public, or malicious.

"I'd have a hard time getting promoted and a hard time getting out of patrol," he said.

He now hopes the risk he and the others are taking pays off.

Call for a purge

Patrol officers that spoke to CBC News universally said the first step in addressing their concerns was getting rid of the current executive.

"We need somebody from outside to come in and take a look and see who needs to be here and there needs to be some buyouts and some contracts maybe not renewed and we need to get new executive officers. In my mind, you clear out the deputies, you clear out a good portion of the superintendents," said one officer.

Those on the streets say that would be first step to righting the CPS ship. It may seem a daunting task, but more than one pointed to Christine Silverberg, who came from outside the organization and cleaned house when she became chief in 1995.

Even with a purge of the service's top layer, however, officers say that would still leave patrol with too few resources, too little time and too few bodies to get the job done.

Some suggest more officers should be taken from desk jobs and that a hard look at accommodation is needed.

There are also those working in places like the HR department that some feel should be put back onto the street. It's something the Coun. Gondek agrees with.

Former chief human resources officer with the Calgary Police Service, Sheila Ball, lasted less than a year on the job. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

"One of the things that we've definitely tried to do is civilianization of certain positions so you don't have sworn officers having to do jobs that could be done by a very qualified civilian. So that you can have as many sworn officers, who are trained in police work, actually executing police work," she said. "That is absolutely something that we are looking at."

Currently, the department is staffed by officers who do little to challenge superiors and who are "usually tied to the chiefs or the deputies."

The HR file has been a flashpoint in the ongoing debate about what's going on in the service and was supposed to be addressed with the hiring of Sheila Ball in 2017. She was an experienced HR executive who was supposed to wrest control from the police and put it into the hands of civilians.

She lasted less than a year and there's now a hunt for her replacement.

Union, commission and service respond

Kaminski, the head of the police union, said he's not sure what more he can do to advocate for his members and suggests some of the reason for their frustration with the union is because a lot of what he does is behind closed doors.

He said his hands are tied in some situations and unless it's a violation of the collective agreement, all he can do is suggest changes.

What is clear is that communication between the union, the executive and the commission is poor.

"It wasn't like this before," said Kaminski. "It was a three-legged stool and we all had input. I had constant communications with the commission — Mike Shaikh was the chair of the commission at that time — and although we didn't agree on everything, there was an open dialogue and it's not like that anymore."

It wasn't like this before. It was a three-legged stool and we all had input- CPA president Les   Kaminski

And while some members criticize Kaminski for focusing on tenure, he said his issue with the program is that it hasn't helped relieve the patrol officers.

The Calgary Police Commission released a statement from chair Brian Thiessen when approached by CBC News.

"The commission is working hard to make sure we hire the right leader to address these concerns and to push forward with addressing the challenges the organization faces," reads a portion of the statement.

"Last year, the commission advocated to the city for a budget increase to enable CPS to hire more members to relieve some pressure facing employees. We continue to work with the city to make sure CPS gets the resources it needs to invest in the safety of our community and the wellness of CPS members."

The Calgary Police Service says it's facing staff shortages in all areas. And it's well aware of the officers' concerns.  

Acting Deputy Chief Ryan Ayliffe, in charge of operations, says the service is working to improve the situation.

It's expecting 36 recruits to graduate and be ready to hit the streets by the end of the year. And the service says it's boosting its recruitment classes for 2019. 

"We want our officers to know we understand what they are going through, they are driving themselves very hard because they want to do a good job. We have a good core of officers working hard, we just have to balance what staff we have with all the critical areas in the whole service, and it's tough."

Ayliffe said the service recently created a new patrol response team, based on feedback from the front line, that is dispatched to busy areas to help relieve high call areas, on a full-time basis.

The risks of talking

It's hard to overstate what it means for some patrol officers to come forward, to step outside the chain of command and agree to talk to the media.

It speaks to just how broken they feel the system is.

Officers describe shifts that stretch into 14 hours, with court appearances that must be attended on their time off, only to be back on the street the next day to start all over.

They are expected to make the right decisions with little rest and under tremendous stress, sometimes with guns drawn, they say.

Some front-line officers have started wearing Code 200 bracelets to highlight their working conditions, as demonstrated in this photo illustration. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Mistakes are inevitable and contribute to a culture of fear within the organization. If you step out of line or become a target for those in power, they will find a mistake and exploit it, said one officer.

Another said all the criminals on the street aren't equal to what's happening in the workplace.

"By far the biggest stress that any cop out here feels, it's not going into a dark alley with someone with a gun — that's fine, they'll deal with that," he said. "It's dealing with the politics and the bureaucracy and the decisions that come out of the executive suite."

They are sharing their story in the hopes that their concerns will bypass what's described as a broken rung in a communication ladder. They're trying to reach the top of the organization directly, either through the Code 200 campaign or the media.

"If I can effect any type of change so that they understand there is an issue, then I am doing my part," said one officer.

About the Author

Colleen Underwood and Drew Anderson are journalists with CBC News in Calgary. You can reach Drew securely through the Signal app, username: Drewps, or in confidence by email at drew.anderson@cbc.ca. You can reach Colleen Underwood securely through the Signal app, username: ColleenU, in confidence by email at colleen.underwood@cbc.ca.