Calgary's 1st female police chief says same problems plague force 23 years later

Retired police chief Christine Silverberg says when she walked onto the job in July 1995, she was handed a service in turmoil.

Christine Silverberg says biggest problem is lack of continuity from one chief to the next

Christine Silverberg was Calgary's chief of police from 1995 to 2000. (CBC)

Retired police chief Christine Silverberg said when she walked into the job in October 1995, she took over a service in turmoil with leadership problems, disenfranchisement and diversity issues.

She said there were calls for a systemic change within the organization and an external police chief to lead it.

Fast forward 23 years, and she hears the same cries for help by members today in what she sees and hears in the media.

"What is going on?" asked Silverberg.

"Why can't there be a continuity, a consistency, a building on the good and taking away the bad, learning from the mistakes, constantly learning from what has been going on?"

She said the problem is at the end of their tenure, each chief walks out the door and closes it behind them. There is no overlap. They are not the ones to pass the torch.

The Calgary police service isn't alone — it happens across the country.

"The last day I was on the job was Oct. 10 and that was it."

Two steps forward…

Silverberg, a native Ontarian, was appointed Calgary's police chief in 1995, serving for five years until 2000 when she stepped down to pursue a law career. 

She made history when she became the first woman in the country to head a major city police force.

She said as she went through her policing career in the '70s and '80s, and saw issues around discrimination and the way police interacted with their communities, she knew she wanted to rise to a position of power where she could affect change.

When she took the top policing job in Calgary, she said it wasn't easy being that agent of change, remembering the time someone drew a pink outline of a body outside police headquarters.

She was also the target of threats.

Former police chief Christine Silverberg speaks to CBC in 1997:

Christine Silverberg, Calgary's chief of police

25 years ago
Duration 3:53
Calgary police force names its first female chief.

But she stood determined to push through the pushback.

She got rid of the superintendent level, to minimize the clutter, as she saw it, within the ranks.

She put a direct phone line in her office to give officers, or anyone within the service, direct access her if they needed to talk confidentially.

And she put a civilian in charge of CPS' professional standards section, which is responsible for investigating police complaints and misconduct.

She said she also spent a lot of time listening to everyone within the service, from the mechanic at the shop to the highest ranked officers when she first stepped into the role, to learn their perceptions of the systemic problems and potential solutions.

She even relied on front-line members to tackle organizational problems, such as the way promotions were handled.

"So that you couldn't then say I wasn't consulted or the voice of the frontline isn't being heard or all of these things because they were the ones developing it."

Yet, she said, for all the advances she might have made, she is concerned to see the service still dealing with many of the same issues.

No debrief with former chiefs

The head of the police commission's search committee for a new chief, Richard Sigurdson, disagrees that there's been a lack of continuity with successive chiefs.

"I don't think things change on a 360 every time a new police chief comes in, there will be some continuity," said Sigurdson.

He said the commission helped design CPS' HR reforms and established the policies around community policing in consultation with the senior leadership team within the service.

So they will inform the incoming chief about the current priorities.

In recent weeks, the commission has been asking for input from Calgarians, through an online survey, officers, both in person and in a recent employee survey, as well as from the police association and city council.

That feedback is being used to determine the next chief's position profile, or job description, which will be posted this week.

"We're making no bones about the fact that we have heard from the membership that there is concern about the low level of morale."

"There is a sense among many members that decisions have been made that aren't communicated very effectively and or are not based on what it is the members are saying or in their own best interests."

The commission has also heard the need for someone who can understand where the rank-and-file members are coming from and where the organization as a whole needs to go.

But Sigurdson said the current search process that began in August has not included one-on-one conversations with the former police chief Roger Chaffin, or any other previous police chiefs.

'Fresh eyes'

Silverberg said that's too bad because she knows those who have sat in that job could pass on some valuable experience based on their successes and failures.

And she said it would be especially important given the fact the service is in the midst of implementing HR reforms to address bullying, harassment and morale issues.

She said her door is always open if the commission or the next chief would like to sit down with her.

As for whether she would suggest an internal or external candidate take on the next top constable job, she said it's about the best candidate, although she said, it can be tougher for internal candidates to implement sweeping changes.

"For the very reason that they have been embedded in the system and may have been even put down in the system.

"So sometimes you need fresh eyes."

The commission has said it remains open to both internal or external candidates.


Colleen Underwood has been a reporter/editor with CBC news for more than 10 years filing stories from across southern Alberta for radio, television and online. Follow her on Twitter @cbccolleen.


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