Police Chief Neufeld focuses on systemic racism, enforcing COVID restrictions as unprecedented year winds down
He's eager to get rally organizers to court to 'test their theories' about unlawful restrictions
It's been an unprecedented year for most, and that includes the Calgary Police Service.
And simmering in the background, the COVID-19 pandemic changed how Calgarians live their lives, adding layers of financial and social pressure that have compounded with the passage of time.
In an interview with CBC News at 6 host Rob Brown on Tuesday, Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld reflected on a year that has demanded the service evolve.
He explained why he wants to get anti-mask rally organizers to court, how his own views about systemic racism within the CPS have changed, and the politicization of the movement to "defund the police."
- WATCH the full interview with Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld above.
"I think early on in the pandemic, we had to adapt a lot of the ways in which we delivered police services. And some of it was doing it from a distance or doing it over the phone or doing it over the computer, just in order to be able to comply with the public health guidance as well," Neufeld said.
"But it's an anxious time … everybody's got loved ones, some of whom would be more susceptible to the negative impacts of the virus and that sort of thing, so I think it's just been a tough time for everybody."
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Calgarians were openly ignoring gathering restrictions again at a protest last weekend. What kind of consequences would the people who attended be facing?
A: It was a bit disappointing to see after some of the discussions we'd had earlier in the week, but we will continue with our efforts in enforcement, certainly targeting initially the people who are responsible for organizing and putting those things together.
I think it comes down to the need to help them get into court, so they can actually test their theories about those restrictions being unlawful, and helping to move that forward, because, frankly, Stephen Avenue or Olympic Plaza aren't the place to debate it.
Q: You mentioned that you've only been targeting the organizers of these rallies. Why shouldn't everyone that's breaking the law be fined and charged?
A: It comes down, a little bit, to capacity; these have been larger rallies.
But we're hopeful that by focusing on the individuals that are organizing, and perhaps feel the most strongly about this, and want to go into court and make their arguments, that maybe we can help move things forward in a positive way — without having to lay an excessive number of fines.
Q: Clearly the charges and fines that have already been laid were not enough of a deterrent given that after they were laid, another protest happened. What other enforcement options are you considering?
A: We're talking right now with our partners at the Crown's office there to see what next steps are. Hopefully we'll see some movement in relation to testing their theories about whether or not these restrictions are lawful or not.
Q: Another major issue police services across North America are having to grapple with this year is systemic racism. I recall you struggling a bit when you were first asked about whether systemic racism is prevalent within CPS. How would you answer that question today?
A: I would say yes, it is [prevalent].
Initially, I was wanting to understand it a little bit more. We all like to believe, I think, that things are much different in the U.S. than they are in Canada. And I think, fundamentally, the policing systems are quite different.
But we heard from citizens in Calgary who were marching in our streets, and subsequently presenting in our municipal building, and talking about stories of their own interactions with our officers, which were actually way more personal than anything that was happening elsewhere.
So the reality of it is, when you took time to listen to what was going on and the lived experiences of people in our community, there's no question. But I mean, it shouldn't be a big surprise, either. Systemic racism occurs across, really, all of our institutions, so I don't think anybody should be shocked that it occurs in policing — and that includes the Calgary Police Service.
Q: As part of your desire to address systemic racism within policing, you indicated that you were willing to give up millions of dollars of the police budget in a reallocation of funds to other front-line services. City council decided to cover that instead, but can you explain to me how that reallocation would have addressed systemic racism in our city?
A: We had heard from other members of the community that the police were responding to certain incidents — some of them dealing with mental health crises — that maybe other agencies should be looking at, and we don't disagree with that. So really, that was some common ground.
For us to be willing to commit money, it had to be linked to initiatives that would actually reduce calls for service from the police in the short-term, and provide value as well for front-line police officers that are responding to these sorts of calls.
Q: The reallocation of money away from CPS to other services has been a lightning rod for some politicians in Alberta, including Justice Minister Kaycee Madu, who has accused city council of caving to the movement. What do you think of that issue being politicized?
A: I think it's unfortunate in many ways. And I think part of the challenge of trying to recognize, better understand and better address significant issues for a portion of our population here in Calgary is that it seems to just get lost and obfuscated by the fact that this is such a binary and polarizing debate.
Apparently you have to either support one portion of the community or the other, and you can't support it all, sadly. We're trying to stay out of the politics and say, you know what, we're trying to do what is right. And we're doing what we can to improve the experiences for all the community.
Q: Let's end by looking ahead. What's going to be the biggest challenge facing CPS in 2021?
A: I think we're all eagerly anticipating a bit of a reprieve and a vaccine and a return to normal, and I think it's hard to say when normal will be back. So, we're trying to be realists about that.
But we've got some challenges in Calgary in relation to the core business of keeping the community safe, which is always our No. 1 priority.
Our shootings continue to be high this year. So that's going to continue to be an issue for us going into 2021.
Homicide numbers were very high this year, higher than normal. We're hoping to see a regression to something more normal next year as well.
And then internally, we are in the middle of an organizational review, we are partway through that.
We're looking forward to getting reconnected. Getting reconnected internally, and also getting reconnected to the community. Nothing replaces the ability to get out and build those relationships and make sure that we have a high level of understanding.
With files from the News at 6.