Calgary police has to address 'heartbreaking' low morale in 2022: Chief Neufeld – Calgary Herald

‘Looking forward into 2022, I think it’s a little bit of a question mark,’ Neufeld said
As Alberta approaches the two-year mark of life in a pandemic, Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld says 2021 has been another unpredictable “year of learning.”
COVID-19 changed city crime trends significantly, making it a “statistical anomaly” — patterns of home and business break-and-enters changed significantly, and in the pandemic’s earliest days, overall crime rates plunged as businesses closed and people’s daily routines were completely disrupted as everyone was told to stay close to home.
In a year-end interview with Postmedia, Neufeld said the police service has seen the situation continuing to shift as society has danced in and out of restrictions in 2021. Violent crime went up this past year, and police are responding to more calls for assaults and crime where weapons are involved. The  service has also seen social disorder-related calls tick up, especially in downtown Calgary, where workers have largely still not returned to office towers and vulnerable people living on the streets are struggling.
“Looking forward into 2022, I think it’s a little bit of a question mark,” Neufeld said, noting the emergence of the Omicron variant is creating yet more uncertainty.
“We’re going to continue to focus on the issues around violent crime and crime in the downtown. Those are big issues to Calgarians and big issues to us.”
But setting priorities for the year ahead also comes with the acknowledgment of a major morale problem at CPS.
The Calgary police commission’s 2021 employee engagement report showed just 19 per cent of respondents said morale within the force is good, the lowest levels in a decade.
Neufeld said every front-line worker has had a tough time during the pandemic, and police are no exception. And he’s heard a clear message officers are struggling with the demands of heavy workloads and feeling unsupported while they do it.
“The results were, I’m going to say, not good, and then there’s like 50 feet down, and that’s about where I feel like we are,” Neufeld said of current morale within the service. “And it’s heartbreaking.”
In November, city council approved a $6.08-million budget increase for CPS, which Neufeld said will help relieve immediate pressures. The money will go toward hiring 13 more officers and 25 civilian employees, mostly focused on HR reform.
The chief told council the positions are key to help police employees get the resources they need, with staffing down and demands for psychological services up.
“I really think we have to look after our people so that they can continue to be there for Calgarians in the way that Calgarians expect and deserve, because it’s been a long, hard run and it’s going to be a little longer.”
There’s been recent conflict with the city as CPS applied for a provincial program to access more rapid test kits for unvaccinated employees, beyond the Dec. 1 deadline when any city workers — including police — without two shots to protect against COVID were meant to start paying for their own testing.
Neufeld said he had to make a choice to be “consistent with policing” even as the move has been heavily criticized by Mayor Jyoti Gondek, who said continuing to offer the testing sends the wrong message about the importance of vaccination on the path to ending the pandemic.
Besides the impact of COVID-19 bringing morale down, the chief says he also has to manage difficult conversations internally about the current perception of police and ongoing calls from the public for reform.
Neufeld publicly acknowledged in the fall of 2020 the presence of systemic racism within the police service, and he’s been front and centre talking about the path to change the system that racialized people have called out for causing harm. The police service has allocated some of its own budget toward efforts to explore alternative crisis response models, but some of the $8 million put toward that work in 2020 was also distributed internally to support those efforts.
The chief said officer feedback about feeling a lack of support sits with him. He said he believes progress toward a new system is happening, but it can’t happen overnight.
And in the meantime, he described hearing from officers who are frustrated at being called thugs and bullies when efforts to change the police discipline process are being made, and police have “leaned in” to the conversation around the role of the service and times when it’s hurt people or made them feel unsafe.
“We are invested with a lot of power and authority over people’s lives, and we need to be listening to people,” Neufeld said.
“I think it’s grinding down our members, the fact that we are present and wanting to be there to engage in those conversations to create positive change in the system, but the loudest are the voices who, until the lights are off at the police station, they’re going to continue to be critical.”
The chief’s message now is that the police need to be able to feel pride in their work.
“People aren’t always going to like the role of the police. And we want to make sure we deliver those services in a compassionate and fair and equitable way — there’s no question about it,” he explained.
“I think if we can’t create that environment where people are proud of what they’re doing, we’re going to have a hard time retaining the good people that we have. And in the future, we’ll have a hard time bringing new people in, which is not in anyone’s best interests.”
New Year’s Eve marked the first anniversary of the death of Sgt. Andrew Harnett, who died after being hit by a car fleeing a routine traffic stop late on Dec. 31, 2020.
The case has been in the news again recently, with one of the people in the car at the time pleading guilty to manslaughter. The other person charged with murder, who was a youth at the time, is scheduled to stand trial in 2022.
Harnett was the first Calgary police officer to be killed on the job since the 1990s, and Neufeld said many of the officers currently working for the service had never experienced that kind of loss before.
“What I learned is that is the absolute worst thing that can ever happen to an individual, a family, a police service and a community,” he said.
Neufeld said ongoing news about the court case will continue to be a trigger for many of Harnett’s colleagues as it unfolds.
“That’s going to bring back a lot of very strong feelings,” he said.
“And so making sure that we’re there for people in those moments as well, recognizing what are the moments that actually bring out emotion again, and so we’ve been there all the way along the way.”
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Twitter: @meksmith
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