Ottawa’s new police chief says building trust a top priority after ‘a tough year’
November 28, 2022 By The Canadian Press
Nov. 28, 2022, Ottawa, Ont. – Ottawa’s new police chief says building trust with the community is a top priority after what he acknowledged has been “a tough year” for the force.
Eric Stubbs was expected to meet with the city’s police services board on Monday for the first time since he was sworn in earlier this month.
But the board meeting was cut short before he could do so, after a protester disrupted proceedings by loudly calling for reforms of the police budget and of the board itself.
That rocky start was just the first of many challenges ahead for Stubbs, whose appointment in October was met with criticism, including by advocates in the city’s Indigenous community.
Stubbs came to the Ottawa Police Service from British Columbia, where he was an assistant RCMP commissioner who helped oversee the police response to the Wet’suwet’en protests.
The Mounties were criticized for their crackdown on Indigenous protesters who opposed construction of a natural gas pipeline on traditional lands in northern B.C., a protracted conflict that saw dozens of protesters arrested for blockading construction sites over the past several years.
Joan Riggs, a facilitator with the Ottawa Aboriginal Coalition, said it takes “a lot of work” to build trust with the police and to feel confident – and she expressed some concerns about how the new chief might approach the job given his past.
Riggs said the changing leadership within the police force has made the relationship even more of a challenge. “It’s hard to build a new relationship when you’re really tired and you’re disappointed,” she said.
In an interview on Monday before the aborted board meeting, Stubbs said that building trust with Indigenous people is a top priority.
“The first step is introducing myself, meeting with them and listening to them,” Stubbs said. “I hear what their concerns about the police (are), what’s working well, what isn’t working well.”
Sahada Alolo, the co-chair of the police service’s community equity council, said she was shocked to hear that Stubbs was chosen for the job.
Alolo sits on the boards of the African Canadian Association of Ottawa and the Ottawa Muslim Association. She said she was hoping the new chief would be someone more familiar with the Ottawa community – and more aware of the issues that need to be addressed.
Riggs echoed that sentiment.
“Knowledge is less important than relationship to us,” she said. “We’re not safe unless people understand what the issues are.”
Riggs said the new chief will need to work to understand the complexities of Indigenous communities in Ottawa. In particular, there are ongoing challenges dealing with cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, she said.
“All I can expect of (police is) they keep progressing,” she said. “I don’t think they’re gonna have an aha moment and just go, ‘We’re practicing differently.’”
Alolo said she had a conversation with Stubbs in which he acknowledged the controversy surrounding his appointment and said he was willing to learn and work with everyone.
Their chat gave her hope, she said.
“His first task is just to listen, then ask, ‘What can I do?’ (He has to) acknowledge the pain people are expressing (and) acknowledge the frustration and let people lead you to how they want you to be involved in their community.”
Stubbs said such conversations are important.
“I hope to continue that,” he said. “It’s a little step towards earning their trust.”
His predecessor, Peter Sloly, was hired as chief in 2019. As an outsider who came from the Toronto police, he was outspoken about the reforms he hoped to make internally.
In September 2020, Sloly wrote an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen about systemic racism in policing, saying the force needed to address racial profiling and make operational and organizational changes to better serve marginalized communities.
In February, thousands of protesters demonstrating against COVID-19 public health restrictions and the federal government blockaded downtown Ottawa streets for more than two weeks.
The city’s police service faced intense criticism for its failure to clear the protests and deal with reported harassment of residents, open fires in the streets and days of blaring truck horns.
In a press conference Feb. 2, Soly told the public there “may not be a policing solution” to the blockades. He resigned Feb. 15, the day after the Trudeau government invoked the Emergencies Act to give police and banks extraordinary powers to clear the protesters out.
Former deputy chief Steve Bell stepped in as interim chief as Ottawa’s city council set out to look for a permanent replacement. A consultation period began and residents were invited to tell council what they wanted in a new chief.
Stubbs took over leadership as a public inquiry was ongoing into the federal government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.
The six weeks of public hearings included testimony from Sloly, Bell and other police witnesses, who described a force that was unprepared to deal with a long-term protest and struggling with internal issues.
Stubbs said Ottawa police will be improving their response to protests.
“There was a lot of concerning testimony that was brought forward. But we’re interested in reading the report in full and looking at the recommendations,” he said.
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