Ottawa police see most diverse recruiting class amid possible budget freeze
Almost 100 new officers received their badges this week
On his very first shift as an Ottawa police officer, Const. Niloy Ahmed tried to resuscitate an unconscious woman who had collapsed in her apartment. Despite his best efforts at CPR, she died.
"I gave it my all but she didn't make it," Ahmed said. "It was tough — my first shift in and I wasn't able to save a life."
This is the reality faced by police officers responding to 911 calls in this city everyday but the 30-year-old officer, now about 20 shifts into his career, hopes to bring more to the job than just the training he's received.
Ahmed is one of 96 Ottawa police officers who formally received their badges at this week's pair of graduation ceremonies for the force's pandemic recruit classes of 2020.
Most of the recruits were hired or started police college more than a year ago, but the ceremonies marked the most diverse class in Ottawa police history. This could also be the last large graduation of recruits for some time amid calls for a budget freeze.
Police say the cutting room floor includes the diversity some advocates for better police and community relations have asked for.
"We're not just diverse in culture, ethnicity and gender, but diverse in skill sets," said Ahmed, whose recruit class can speak 46 different languages.
The December 2020 class of 48 police recruits features half who identify as racialized, 40 per cent who identify as female, six per cent who identify as Indigenous, and five per cent who identify as 2SLGBTQQIA+
Ahmed has wanted to be a police officer since he was a child, but that decision was not without overcoming stigma.
"It's a career that actually has a purpose, where I can actually help people in the community, make an impact," he said.
"[But] I come from Bangladesh and the people in my country, when they look at policing, they avoid it."
He now patrols the downtown core, specifically the ByWard Market area where tourists and people from all over the city congregate.
Ahmed said he's been met by support on the streets of Ottawa, with people happy to see a person of colour or a "brother" in uniform. Others, encouraged by his presence, have told him they want to see more diversity in the police force.
2020 began with ambitious hiring plans
This week's ceremony showed just how much time has passed since Ahmed and his peers were hired. A pandemic year and its related police expenses slowly eroded an ambitious hiring plan to get 100 new recruits on the payroll and patrolling the city — to change the face of the force.
That plan was supposed to fulfil promises to staff the frontline, get full complements of officers into busy investigative units, and to expand community policing in the city. The year ushered in pandemic-related financial pressures and a global reckoning for police, who grappled with maintaining public trust while answering to allegations of racism, misogyny and misconduct.
Const. Melissa Guenet, 28, received her badge this week, too, and she has patrolled on her own since March. Guenet knows policing is a male-dominated profession but she was never deterred by that.
She and another woman officer showed up to a recent call only to be met with encouragement.
"I had someone just tell us, 'Wow, two female officers, we don't see that often.' So it does make a difference. Some people might not see it, but as a female I do feel like we do bring a lot to the plate, as well," said Guenet.
Draft budget to be tabled Nov. 3
In his address to the new recruits, Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly thanked the Ottawa Police Services Board for providing the force with the direction and resources to hire. Those comments came in what remains a moment of heightened budget deliberations.
It's through public "tax dollars" and "their trust and confidence in you" that officers get their legitimacy, he told recruits.
The police board has now directed Ottawa police to prepare a budget for 2022 that assumes a zero per cent budget increase and then to justify any requests beyond that. The direction comes after nearly two years of sustained local calls to defund the police.
Now, in the final weeks before police table a draft budget, community organizations and groups that want to see police adequately staffed to deal with city concerns have added their voices to the clamour.
2020 'changed society forever'
"You reflect our community and you represent the best that it has to offer," Sloly told the recruits.
"You have entered into a new era of policing. Some might say that the year 2020 changed policing forever. In fact, it changed society forever."
Their duty is not only to serve and protect, but to reflect and respect, he said. They have to meet a community's needs but also their expectations, and that means being dedicated to building trust, but also "rebuilding" it when it wavers or breaks entirely.
"You are the start of the real change in the Ottawa Police Service," Sloly said.
"You are not the next generation of police officers. You are the new generation of police officers. You will help to lead the Ottawa Police Service and the City of Ottawa into a better, brighter future."