Ottawa

Chief's response to traffic stop incident 'inflamed' rank and file, police association president claims

The head of Ottawa's police union has accused Chief Peter Sloly of lacking leadership and failing to support rank-and-file officers by speaking out against an alleged incident of racial profiling.

Matt Skof says Chief Peter Sloly 'failed the leadership test'

Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof speaks with CBC's Adrian Harewood about his belief Chief Peter Sloly has failed as a leader. In an open letter posted on the Ottawa Police Association website, Skof took issue with Sloly's assertion that systemic racism exists within policing and accused him of scapegoating a rookie officer accused of racially profiling a Black driver. 6:26

The head of Ottawa's police union has accused Chief Peter Sloly of lacking leadership and failing to support rank-and-file officers by speaking out against an alleged incident of racial profiling.

In an open letter posted on the Ottawa Police Association website, president Matt Skof took issue with Sloly's assertion that systemic racism exists within policing and accused him of scapegoating a rookie officer.

"He has failed the leadership test," Skof wrote. "A sense of hope with a change of command has withered."

The letter came in response to an op-ed Sloly published in the Ottawa Citizen last week after a Black man accused a white Ottawa police officer who pulled him over of racial profiling. The officer said he initiated the traffic stop because he thought the licence plate sticker on the rental car the man was driving had expired — it hadn't.

Sloly, who was named chief just over a year ago, wrote that the police officers and community members he spoke to about the incident generally held one of two opposing views: either they thought the officer had done his job in a professional manner and immediately acknowledged his mistake, or they felt the driver was stopped unjustly and that it was evidence of racial profiling.

Challenge to Sloly's leadership

Sloly went on to write that systemic racism exists within police forces across the country, and that police need to listen to people who raise concerns about how they're treated by law enforcement.

"I have unequivocally and repeatedly stated that conscious and unconscious bias is a challenge for all police members and that systemic racism exists in policing," Sloly wrote.

In an interview with CBC, Skof said Sloly's op-ed has been viewed negatively by many Ottawa police officers.

"There has been a substantial drop in morale since Friday," said Skof. "In my nine years in the role of president, I have yet to hear of another example or see another example where the members have been this upset with the conduct of a police executive."

Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly says systemic racism exists within Canadian policing. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Chief ignored traffic stop data: Skof

Skof wrote in his response that Sloly's article was "loose with the facts and reckless in its conclusions," and that it "inflamed the workforce."

Skof said Sloly's views on systemic racism ignore the results of a 2016 study by researchers at York University that reviewed over 81,000 traffic stops over two years. Skof said the report found that in 86.6 per cent of traffic stops, officers could not identify the race of the driver, and the study did not confirm a bias within the police service.

He has failed the leadership test.- Matt Skof, Ottawa Police Association

"Chief Sloly filtered out the fact that in 88.6% of traffic stops, officers cannot identify a driver's race — for him it remains an inconvenient truth," Skof wrote.

The Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project didn't find evidence of bias because it didn't examine causality. It did find that that Middle Eastern and black drivers — particularly young men — were far more likely to be stopped by Ottawa police than would be expected based on their proportions of the population. 

A follow-up report found similarly high traffic stop rates among those groups, which "cannot be justified and are consistent with findings of racial profiling by other police services."

Low morale an ongoing issue

Sloly began his tenure as police chief vowing to improve low morale, which he said was the worst he's witnessed in any public or private sector organization he's been a part of.

Earlier this year, the Ottawa police services board approved a plan to fast-track the hiring of 70 new officers in addition to the 30 new recruits who were already budgeted for. Sloly also cancelled an unpopular policy that forced members to rotate in and out of different jobs.

But the issue of racism within the force — how it manifests itself and whether it's systemic — has proven divisive.

Sahada Alolo, co-chair of the Ottawa Police Community Equity Council, says refusing to recognize the existence of systemic racism within policing denies the experiences of countless people from non-white communities. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

"When we have the police association president himself denying our experiences, it really, really hurts," said Sahada Alolo, co-chair of the Ottawa Police Community Equity Council, which works to strengthen the force's relationship with non-white, Indigenous and faith-based communities. 

"However, we do not lose sleep over it because we know we are working with OPS leadership and OPS members who are committed to making sure that we actually bring about the right change."

Alolo pointed to the same study Skof cited as evidence that racial discrimination is "embedded in the institution itself [and] that allows police officers to either consciously or unconsciously" target certain groups.

"You cannot dispute that it is there. It is research-based and the evidence is there," said Alolo. 

OPS statement backs chief's stand

In a statement Thursday, the Ottawa Police Service said systemic racism exists in all institutions and all parts of society.

"Combating it means we have to acknowledge and talk about it in an honest and meaningful way," the statement said. "Saying that systems are racist, isn't the same as saying an individual member is racist."

According to the statement, the police service's hard-working members "want to keep learning and growing to meet the expectations of our community," and it will keep work with the OPA to achieve that.

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