Q&A: 2 Canadian police chiefs talk about George Floyd, defunding the police and structural change

The death of George Floyd in Minnesota has led to calls for widespread changes when it comes to policing. Protesters are demanding that allegations of systemic racism within policing be addressed. CBC's Heather Hiscox spoke with Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly and Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee.

Police chiefs from Edmonton and Ottawa question effectiveness of body-worn cameras for officers

Two Canadian police chiefs address significant issues around policing today


11 months ago
Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly and Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee express their hunger for real change and explain what they call a 'structural inability' to solve the issues they face.   27:23

The death of George Floyd has led to calls for widespread change in Canada, particularly when it comes to policing. Activists and protesters are demanding that allegations of systemic racism within policing be addressed, and some are calling for the defunding of police.

CBC's Heather Hiscox spoke with Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly and Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee about these issues.

CBCWhen you saw the video of George Floyd under the knee of that Minneapolis police officer, what was your reaction? 

McFee: It was like I got kicked in the stomach. It was disgusting. It was by no means acceptable. It was an attack, a professional attack on our minority communities and just the communities in general. And it's ultimately nothing to do with professionalism. It's criminal. And it just made me sick.

Sloly: It was a criminal tragedy. It's one that affects me as a police professional, as a human being, and as a person who self identifies as Black.

I will tell you, I'm still proud of what you see in this country. It's the best brand of policing anywhere in the world. It is not without its faults. We have individuals who let us down at every level in the institution and we have institutions that have systemic flaws, not just in policing, but in other parts of society. Our challenge is not to just identify the bad apples or the bad batch of apples, but to address the entire tree from the tree top, which is the chief's office, down to the roots, which is the culture. 

Axel-Eitel​​​​​​​ Kutnjem Ntienjem, an Ottawa man studying at the University of Toronto, holds a sign calling for better police training during a rally against police violence and anti-black racism on June 5, 2020. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

CBCYou spoke of systemic flaws, Chief Sloly, that there is systemic racism in Canadian policing and the system is, in fact, broken. Do you agree with that, Chief McFee?

McFee: Absolutely, but I think when I say that, I think we've got to also focus on there's a new group of police leadership ... I think there's been many positive gains. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. And you mentioned systemic racism. But systemic racism is in our communities. It's right across. 

CBC: But included in policing? It's important for people to hear police saying that it does exist.

McFee: Absolutely.

CBC: The service is revisiting the issue [of body-worn cameras] Where do you fall on on whether Ottawa should take this up now and why?

Sloly: I'm very open to revisiting the business case here in Ottawa with the same approach that we're looking for, not a silver bullet solution to the issues of cultural change, institutional change and advancing the professionalism of individuals. But I'm also not going to stand simply on a silver bullet technology solution. The reviews and research on body worn cameras is now quite mixed. There are very good cases for it and very strong cases against it.

For me, though, I'm looking at bigger changes. Changing our entire approach to human resources — who we recruit and the quality, the diversity ... of those individuals. 

CBC: Chief McFee, Where where do you think Edmonton service could make use or should make use [of body worn cameras]?

McFee: I personally don't think body worn cameras are a good investment. There's been 70-plus reviews on this. There's a comprehensive review that was just done.

There's nothing to say that it's improved the relationship between the police and community. It's a snapshot [that is] outward looking. It looks at the other individual, not the officer's misconduct.

I think the real answer here is I would rather put that money into training the person behind the camera, the officers and into the community programs that we've been talking about in relation to have better combined services.

We are, in Edmonton, moving to dashcams in cars, dashcams in cars are usually where we respond with a car. It's got a peripheral view of 360 feet [110 metres] of mic. And I think that is a step forward that has some positive gains. 

A member of the Vancouver Police Department wears a chest mounted GoPro camera as he oversees the take down of a tent city in downtown Vancouver on Oct. 16, 2014. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

CBCWhat you hear from some people is it's time to defund the police. What do you interpret that to mean?

Sloly: It's completely understandable that in the moments and days and weeks following a tragedy of the proportion that we've seen in Minneapolis and other tragedies across Canada, right here in Ottawa, that people have an extremely emotional reaction to this. That is completely understandable. And in that reaction, you will look for simple phrases, simple solutions to tackle complex tragedies.

And so, yes, #defendthepolice, #disbandthepolice are trending on Twitter. We had that type of emotional reaction and tragedies in other institutions. We defunded and disbanded the health-care institutions significantly. We did that particularly with the mental health institutions, the psychiatric hospitals.

And in the course of one decade [that] means we put 95 per cent of the resources out of the system and 100 per cent of people into community. And basically, there was no capacity infrastructure to deal with it. Guess where it fell to? The police of jurisdiction in small towns and rural villages and in big cities across Canada. 

A protester raises his fist on Parliament Hill during a rally against anti-black racism and police brutality on June 5, 2020. (Patrick Louiseize/Radio-Canada)

McFee: If the bulk of policing calls for service are about community safety and well-being, well, isn't that the same as EMS and mental health and addictions? Why haven't we restructured? What we can't do (and which is what I try to urge here) is just push it from one entity to another, because we've done that over and over and over. Look at the fundamental structure of what people need for help and then design around it. And if we get that right, we have changed the game. 

CBCIf there is the understanding there that there is a wholesale structural transformation that has to occur, what has been the obstacle? 

Sloly:  The will and the skill to make change, fundamental and sustainable change, is there. It's in our frontline officers. It's in our senior noncommissioned officers. It's in our senior officers. It's in our boards. It's in our unions. No one is standing in the way. We have a structural inability to move this forward.

Municipal budgets pay for policing. Provincial laws create the policing act around which we operate. And in many cases, in the laws that we operate under are federal creatures. There are three levels of government working on our electoral cycles with siloed budgets and different mandates. 

And guess who gets lost? The human being, John Q. Citizen and Jane Q. Citizen in communities across Canada who want something better.

This interview has been edited and condensed