Ottawa police chief on racist comments: All officers are human, have biases

Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau says he doesn't negate the impact of racist comments allegedly posted online by one of his sergeants, but adds that police officers are human beings with biases who can learn not to let them affect their work.

Charles Bordeleau says police can learn to recognize their biases, ensure they don't affect their work

Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau says he learned of the comments on Sunday evening and directed the force to investigate on Monday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau says he doesn't negate the impact of racist comments allegedly posted online by one of his sergeants, but adds that police officers are human beings with biases who can learn not to let them affect their work.

"I can tell you that the comments are inappropriate. They don't reflect the values of the members of the Ottawa Police Service, they don't reflect the values of this organization, and they certainly don't reflect my values," Bordeleau told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Thursday, stopping short of calling the comments racist.

"I'm certainly hearing that they're being seen as being racist comments," Bordeleau said. "I certainly appreciate and understand how those comments are being received."

Bordeleau received an email on Sunday evening from Gatineau, Que., resident Veldon Coburn after Coburn noticed two comments on an Ottawa Citizen online article about the death of Annie Pootoogook, a celebrated Inuk artist whose body was found in the Rideau River last week.

Charles Bordeleau addresses accusations of racism

6 years ago
Duration 1:21
Ottawa's police chief says officers are human and have biases, but can't let it affect their work.

Comments appear connected to sergeant

The comments, which Coburn noted were "troubling for the overt racism of the text," were posted from the Facebook account of Chris Hrnchiar, who Coburn noted appeared to be an Ottawa police sergeant. Coburn called that "distressing."

One of the comments dismissed Pootoogook's death as "not a murder case," even though the major crimes unit is investigating and police have said there are suspicious elements to the case.

"Typically many Aboriginals have very short lifespans, talent or not," the commenter also wrote.

The same commenter wrote a second post that characterized Canada's Indigenous community as "just satisfied being alcohol or drug abusers."

Both comments have since been deleted from the Citizen's online story.

Annie Pootoogook, seen here in 2013 in Ottawa, was found dead in the Rideau River on Sept. 19. The Ottawa police major crimes unit is investigating. (Alexei Kintero)

Officer remains on active duty

The officer remains on active duty, Bordeleau told Ottawa Morning host Robyn Bresnahan on Thursday, adding that he has communicated with that officer directly.

"He's in a capacity where, from my perspective, he doesn't need to be removed from his duties right now as we continue this investigation," Bordeleau said.

"We'll be working with him and our officers will be interviewing him and ascertaining exactly the circumstances and the context around why he would make such, such, these comments."

Bordeleau said he doesn't believe making racist comments is an offence that requires firing, but didn't entirely shut the door on the possibility.

"I'd have to check case law with respect to what is happening in the police world. I do not believe that it would meet that threshold, however, as a chief of police ... those comments are inappropriate and they do not belong, they do not reflect our values," he said.

'Everybody has biases'

Bordeleau said police get extensive training on fair and impartial policing, and have mechanisms to ensure that biases don't affect police work.

"Everybody has biases, whether you're a police officer or a member of society, and ... our job as police officers is to ensure that those biases don't impact the work that we're doing," Bordeleau said.

"They're either conscious or unconscious biases, and we have to do everything we can to make sure ... [they] do not impact the work we do. Those biases exist in any profession. ... We're human beings."

Officers have also been affected by Pootoogook's death, he said.

"We make mistakes as human beings, but every member of the [force] cares passionately about their community. They care passionately about Annie. They're very saddened by her death because they knew her, they dealt with her," Bordeleau said.

"I can assure you that even within the police service, people are upset that these comments were made. They're inappropriate. We've been swift in response and we will take the appropriate action and work with our community."

A coalition of social justice groups called on Ottawa police in August to acknowledge there is a 'crisis' in how they deal with racialized communities. (CBC)

Abdi death sparked calls for change

The complaint comes on the heels of the July 24 arrest and subsequent death of Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year-old Somali-Canadian who had mental health issues.

Abdi's death, now the subject of a Special Investigations Unit probe, sparked outrage in the Somali community and with social justice groups across Canada.

The group Justice for Abdirahman called for sweeping changes to how police interact with visible minorities and people with mental health issues, as well as tougher and more transparent enforcement of those changes.

'No evidence' of racist officers, Bordeleau says

Asked about the lack of faith some have in police, Bordeleau firmly stood behind his officers Thursday and called it part of a larger trend.

"I have no evidence to indicate that we have racist officers," he said.

"We've had some interactions with our diverse community that are problematic. I hear the community talk about how they've been treated ... whether they've been stopped more often, whether they've been street-checked a lot, I hear that and I appreciate that that may have happened.

"That's a trend across society now. ... That's a trend that's happening in policing with respect to public trust and confidence. We are seeing an erosion across the sector ... and we're seeing that in Ottawa as well because of some events that have happened."

Bordeleau added that hopes to repair the force's "fractured" relationship with the community makes police outreach work "even more important," and the force will continue to work hard on it.