Ottawa's police chief on systemic racism, mental health crisis calls and the need for change

Ottawa's chief of police says he's optimistic that his organization can address systemic racism and find better ways of responding to mental health calls — even as trust in police, especially within the city's Black community, has eroded.  

Chief Peter Sloly addresses criticisms in the wake of not-guilty decision in death of Abdirahman Abdi

Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly takes part in a panel in November, 2019. Sloly is looking to reform Ottawa police when it comes to how officers respond to people in mental health crisis, like Abdirahman Abdi, who died following an arrest in 2016. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa's chief of police says he's optimistic that his organization can address systemic racism and find better ways of responding to mental health calls, even as trust in police, especially within the city's Black community, has eroded. 

Earlier this month, a judge found Ottawa police Const. Daniel Montsion not guilty in the 2016 death of Abdirahman Abdi, a decision that "devastated" his surviving family, their lawyers said.

Chief Peter Sloly spoke with Ottawa Morning host Robyn Bresnahan about how the service is working to repair its image and address long-standing issues.

Here's their conversation. It has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you think it means for a city when trust and confidence in the police has been eroded?

I think that's a factor across the country, certainly here. Trust and confidence in almost every institution, including trust and confidence in the media [has eroded]. That's been a factor that's been at play in Western society for well over two decades for a whole variety of reasons. Coming back to the issue of policing trust and confidence, [it] is absolutely critical to the mission of policing, and therefore it must be mission critical for us to build back whatever confidence [is lost].

You have said that the death of Abdirahman Abdi weighed heavily on his family, the local Somali community and the city as a whole. You have also said that it has deeply affected all members of the Ottawa Police Service. Why did you want to emphasize that point?

Because we're part of the community. The vast majority of our members live, work, play, raise their children, go to school in this city. Coworkers, friends, colleagues, neighbours were directly impacted and continue to be impacted.

So it has a deep impact on the service, as it does on every member of this community in the nation's capital.

A person holds a sign calling for the defunding of the police during a rally after an Ottawa Police constable was found not guilty of manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon in connection with the 2016 death of Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year old Black man, in Ottawa, on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

What would you say to people who don't believe that? That the police would just be relieved that one of their colleagues got off?

I would say it's an unfortunate frame of reference. There will be mistakes, there will be very tragic moments like we saw four years ago, but [police are leaning] toward progress and toward demonstrating value for the investment that taxpayers make, and demonstrating that we are part of the community, not apart from the community.

If you were sitting across from an officer who was very honest with you, perhaps like [Ottawa Police Association president] Matt Skof, who said there is no systemic racism, who rolls their eyes every time they hear the term because they feel like it means nothing?

I handle it every single day. Those are the conversations I've been having for almost 30 years in two different police organizations with people from front-line roles all the way to executive suites.

I'm not looking to get the consensus on this — I don't think anybody will get to it in any organization — but [I am looking for] a base level of understanding, common terminology and definitions, and a common agreement that we can and should do better.

What have you heard from your officers about how they've been affected by Mr. Abdi's death?

The full range of emotions. Certainly on the day of the verdict there was a sense of relief. I felt that right across this country, quite frankly. There was also a sense of, what's next? Because we don't ever want to go through this again.

So what is next?

We're going to be doing a full Section 11 review, that's the mandatory legislation review of any SIU investigation that will go well beyond the scope of the criminal trial. It will look at everything from policy, procedure, practice, equipment and training.

All of that will be done in conjunction with community partners like our Community Equity Council, and certainly with the [police] board.

And we also discussed at length a whole new approach to providing mental health services to the million people in this city.

Community members pray in memory of Abdirahman Abdi at the rally on Oct. 20, 2020 in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

You have said that police do not want to be the first responders in mental health crises. Can you tell us more about what you meant by that?

We will always have a role to play, and particularly on the extreme end of a person in crisis, where there is violence and/or criminality involved. What we need to get out of, very quickly, as long as there's a safety net that's left behind, is the upstream types of calls: someone who is not in crisis, someone who is looking for information, a referral to a service provider.

Even crisis calls, to some degree, can be [better] facilitated. We could have a police officer with a trained mental health provider who's not an employee of the Ottawa Police Service.

(Editor's note: Potential changes coming to Ottawa police include staffing the police dispatch centre with a mental health professional to help with some 911 calls, or extra training for all sworn officers. Read more about it here.)

I want to remind people, for almost 40-50 years, the police across this country have been dealing with the vast majority of all of those [mental health] calls. They have never been trained, never been funded, they don't get selected for this work but they are expected to do the work, and quite frankly we've done it to an exceptionally high level, but there have been tragedies like the one involving Mr. Abdi.

And so we all have to recognize that this model is not optimal. We all have skin in the game here, let's figure out how to do it right for each other and with each other and not against each other.

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