'There is no short-term solution': former Winnipeg police chief wants to overhaul police training

A former Winnipeg police chief is leading a push to change police training in Canada for the long-term good of officers and the people they serve.

Coalition for Canadian Police Reform hopes to convince government to start professional policing college

Police training needs to include courses on racism, bias and de-escalation, not just on physical skills and following rules, former Winnipeg police chief David Cassels says. (Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco/CBC)

A former Winnipeg police chief is leading a push to change police training in Canada for the long-term good of officers and the people they serve.

David Cassels, head of the Winnipeg police from 1996-1999, is now the volunteer chair of the nascent Coalition for Canadian Police Reform, which hopes to convince the federal government to put in place national training standards for police officers, just as it has for doctors and engineers. 

Police training, Cassels said, shouldn't look as it does today. With its sharp focus on paramilitary format, rules, and physical and firearms skills, he calls it "boot-camp type of training."

While many of those things are necessary to the job, he said a standard, modernized curriculum also needs to incorporate teachings on racism, bias and the impact of colonization on Indigenous Peoples. 

"Most police officers never learn any of that and if they haven't learned it in school they really know very little about it, understanding and dealing with people with health problems and marginalized groups." Cassels said. 

"Of course they need to learn how to handle a firearm properly and drive a car properly at high speeds… But all of those skills are so traditional, all of the other important skills are left out." 

A coalition colleague, a police officer in Ottawa currently on leave, just finished doing a lengthy study showing most police training doesn't include "basic things" like de-escalation and conflict resolution training, he said.

"And it's no wonder that police officers, when they deal with stressful situations between people or between themselves and individuals ...  have this 'command and control,' dominating sort of approach," said Cassels. 

A professional policing college — an idea that has taken hold in the U.K. and New Zealand — would research and set training standards, develop courses and deliver them to Canadian police agencies for free, Cassels said. 

A young boy holds a George Floyd poster as he sits on a shoulder after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced June 21 to 22 1/2 years in prison for the May 2020 murder of Floyd in Minneapolis. (Jim Mone/The Associated Press)

Calls to defund and even abolish policing in North America have been frequent since a Minneapolis officer murdered George Floyd in May 2020 by kneeling on his neck for up to nine and half minutes as he struggled to breathe. 

Bystander video of Floyd's arrest on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a corner store prompted protests around the world and led to scattered violence in Minneapolis and beyond, and demands for overhauling police departments and the disciplining of officers.

In Winnipeg, the April 2020 police shooting death of Eishia Hudson has prompted similar calls. The officer who shot her was cleared of wrongdoing by Manitoba's Independent Investigation Unit. A judicial inquest into her death is pending. 

Cassels said the reform coalition believes there's "ample opportunity" for police departments to redistribute funding to other agencies better suited to dealing with calls such as mental health problems. The coalition does not support outright defunding, he said. 

"We don't believe that a society like our democracy would function effectively by, you know, just completely doing away [with] and defunding the police," he said. "The police have a critical role to play in society." 

Political challenges expected

Cassels admits the coalition's ambit wouldn't do much to deal with problem officers currently on the job. Culture change takes time, he said. 

"There is no short-term solution, in my opinion. That's why we believe that the standards need to be established nationally." 

While the federal government isn't currently looking at what the coalition is doing, Cassels said its ideas have generated support from former government ministers, police executives, academics and former senator Murray Sinclair. 

Cassels said he knows there will be political challenges.

"The public needs to have input into what the police are being taught right now," he said. "Police officers are providing a service to them yet the public does not know what the police officers are learning. 

"And more importantly they don't know what the police officers are not learning, which is critical."