Ottawa police form new group to engage city's Somali community

The Ottawa Police Service has launched a new outreach group to engage members of the city's Somali community following the death of Abdirahman Abdi.

Outreach Liaison Team led by Staff Sgt. Isobel Granger

According to a 2012 Ottawa Police Service census, 85 per cent of Ottawa Police Service members are white. Black officers make up only 4 per cent of the service. (Idil Mussa/CBC)

The Ottawa Police Service has launched a new outreach group to engage members of the city's Somali community following the death of Abdirahman Abdi in July.

The Outreach Liaison Team was formed in response to Abdi's death. The 37-year-old Somali-Canadian died following a violent altercation with police, and the incident caused many Somalis in Ottawa to express outrage and distrust of the police service.

Staff Sgt. Isobel Granger will lead the new group, which she hopes will repair the fractured relationship.

"What we aim to do is increase community engagement with the Somali community, and the broader communities, to create a conversation," she said. "I know from the conversations that we've had...there's a lot of uncertainty and a lot of hurt going on."

Staff Sgt. Isobel Granger will lead the Ottawa Police Service's new Outreach Liaison Team. (Supplied photo)
Before becoming a police officer in Ottawa, Granger was the first non-white person to join the upper police ranks in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Familiar with issues surrounding racial tensions, Granger says she's committed to rebuilding trust with police service. 

"I do know from the conversation that we've had since the group has come together there is a strong perception in certain areas that treatment is inequitable," she said.

Granger highlights the importance of diversifying the police service in order to better reflect the city's cultural makeup. "I think that if we create a critical mass of men and women that are reflective of our community, it actually breaks down barriers," she said.

Calls for change

Abdi's death has many in Ottawa's Somali community calling for changes to how police interact with black residents. Ottawa police hired a Somali-Canadian man a day after Abdi died, but that had some questioning the sincerity of the move.

"The timing was very, very suspect," said Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic.

Abdirahman Abdi, 37, died one day after he was arrested by Ottawa police on July 24. (Supplied photo)
"What I would like to hear from the chief and the police services board is, what is their strategy now to hire more Somali police officers and...more African-Canadian police officers to ensure that the community — our community — is reflected at all levels of the police service?"

According to a 2012 Ottawa Police Service census, 85 per cent of OPS members are white, with blacks making up only four per cent of the police service.

Ottawa police recently hired 19 new police officers. One, Mohamed Islam, is black, while six are women and two identify as members of the LGBT community.

That's not nearly the amount of diversity Parsons would like to see. "When you have a critical mass of people...they can begin to influence police they enter into positions of management and decision-making and authority," she said.

The hiring of Islam has been seen as a way to appease the Somali community, although the police service and its board deny it. 

'A 1960s solution'

"The publicity of hiring seems to take place whenever there's an incident of racial conflict between the police and visible minority communities," said Calvin Lawrence, who was one of Halifax's only black police officers in 1969.

Calvin Lawrence served with Halifax police and the RCMP for 36 years. (Supplied photo)
"This whole process of hiring of visible minorities is a 1960s solution," said Lawrence, who eventually moved on to the RCMP before retiring after 36 years. "Racial showcasing is used sometimes to say everything is great in policing. Look, we have this person who is the highest, or this person who is the only one here, who is the first."

Like Parsons, Lawrence believes allowing minorities to move up the ranks will inspire change within police forces and help recruit more people of colour. 

"If a visible minority walks into a police office, organization, recruiting centre and they don't see anyone — any pictures on the wall that looks like them — in higher rank, that's a message," he said.

Eli El-Chantiry, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, said Islam was offered employment because of his strong links to the Somali community. In an email to CBC News, he wrote that Islam came with many recommendations from Ottawa police service members from all ranks. 

'It won't change overnight'

Hindia Mohamoud, director of the Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership, believes diversifying the Ottawa Police Service requires a comprehensive strategy.

"Recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce is not something that [will] happen just like that. One has to plan, there has to be the will and leadership. There has to be a plan of action," said Mohamoud.

"I think it's a very important step...because it's very difficult for our police service to be effective in reinforcing the security of a community that's really diverse if they are not diverse," she added. 

"We are behind already and we must address that. The culture of an organization is important and that takes leadership to affect. It won't change overnight."