As face of OPS begins to change, new recruits eager to lead the way

The class of 2020 is the largest is Ottawa police history. It's also shaping up to be one of the most diverse, a signal that the force is making strides to become more reflective of the community it serves.

Class of 2020 just might turn the tide when it comes to racial representation among Ottawa police

The Ottawa Police Service is about to hire nearly 150 uniformed officers in what it says is the biggest cohort of new recruits in its history. This year, 40 per cent of applicants are from a visible minority. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Jessie has dreamed about becoming an Ottawa police officer since he was 13 years old.

"And now it's almost a dream come true," he said.

Jessie — CBC has agreed not to use his real name because he's concerned it could affect his career prospects — is one of close to 150 new officers expected to be hired by the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) this year, making the class of 2020 the largest cohort of recruits in its history, according to the OPS.

Jessie is also Black, and is joining the profession amid a crisis of legitimacy for police across North America in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Here in Ottawa, there's been tension between the OPS and the city's visible and religious minorities.

I honestly think that for the police to really understand the community it takes someone who also grew up in the neighbourhood — that the community has people to talk to that look like me.- 'Jessie,' OPS recruit

But Jessie said that context doesn't deter him; it inspires him. 

"We just got to get to work," he said about his cohort of new recruits. "What we want to do today is make the world a better place for tomorrow."

New diversity lens

These are the first recruits to be hired under a new "equity, diversity and inclusiveness" (EDI) policy aimed at boosting the number of women, as well as visible and religious minorities, within the OPS ranks. 

Jessie grew up in Ottawa and volunteered working with Black youth, and said part of his motivation for joining the service is to help build trust with that community. 

"I honestly think that for the police to really understand the community it takes someone who also grew up in the neighbourhood — that the community has people to talk to that look like me," he said. "And by doing that you build that trust and fill that gap between the police and the community."

Insp. Dave Zackrias has watched applications to join the OPS jump from 600 in a typical year to 1,600 in 2020. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Insp. Dave Zackrias of the OPS outreach recruiting section said the baseline requirements for becoming a police officer remain the same, but the new EDI lens is focused on ensuring the service reflects the community as required under the province's Police Services Act. Zackrias said it's a critical measure of the service's legitimacy in the eyes of the larger community.

To date, the OPS has been getting a failing grade on that score, with only 15 per cent of uniformed officers representing visible minorities in a city where 26 per cent of the population is non-white.

Ottawa Police Service sees jump in applications after removing expensive testing barrier

2 years ago
Duration 1:28
Ottawa police Insp. Dave Zackrias says that by eliminating an expensive testing requirement, the service saw a large jump in the number of applications it received.

Applications spike

Applications to join the OPS have jumped from an average of 600 per year to 1,600 this year, and it's only June. Zackrias credits the removal of a number of barriers that may have held back marginalized applicants — for example, a $300 test administered by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police at the start of the application process.

The new EDI lens has also resulted in a fourfold increase in the number of applications from groups including women, as well as visible and religious minorities, who make up 40 per cent of this year's applicants.

"It is change. At first it will be uncomfortable," Zackrias said. "But over time, people will overcome that discomfort."

OPS recruit 'Jessie' has wanted to be an Ottawa police officer since he was 13. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Concerns about retention

Gérard Etienne, co-chair of the Ottawa Police Community Equity Council, said while he's impressed with the recruitment results, he worries about what will happen to the class of 2020 after they graduate.

"The real issue is whether or not they're going to be able to retain these recruits," Etienne said. "That is something I haven't yet seen in terms of the plan for this group."

After training, new recruits will be paired up with a "coach" officer for 500 hours, or about four months, to learn the ropes.

Ottawa police need internal culture change to retain new recruits, equity council co-chair says

2 years ago
Duration 1:23
Gérard Etienne, co-chair of the Ottawa Police Community Equity Council, says aside from attracting diverse applicants, the police service needs to foster an internal culture that encourages new recruits to stay in the job.

Etienne said it's during that period when rookie officers begin to integrate into the existing police culture — a culture that has been under intense scrutiny lately for incidents including the circulation of a meme denounced by the chief as racist.

Zackrias said his section is developing a mentorship program that would be available to new hires for their first three years on the job, but it's still in the design phase.

Gérard Etienne, co-chair of the Ottawa Police Community Equity Council, has concerns about the police service's ability to retain the new recruits, and about the pressure that will be placed upon them. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Pressure on the class of 2020

Etienne acknowledges expectations are sky-high for the new recruits to bring change to the service.

"Unlike any other cohort, they're entering at a time in history," he said. "So they are walking with these expectations on their shoulders that they are somehow going to change a system that took 150 years to create in Canada. And I want to say to them, 'Don't. That's too much.'"

He said he hopes their sheer numbers alone will have a positive influence on the OPS. 

Jessie, who's still considered a candidate and hasn't been formally hired, said if he gets to join the class of 2020, he knows expectations on him and his peers will be high.

"I want to say that I recognize these past months have been really hard, and there's a lot of fear and uncertainty," he said. "I think this time it's important to come together, and for the younger generation to have a voice and use our voice to make a difference."

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now