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‘It’s a criminal act’: Sudbury police chief reflects on George Floyd arrest

‘For me, as a person who has been wearing a uniform for decades, it's absolutely disgraceful,’’ says Chief Paul Pedersen

With head bowed in silent reflection, Chief Paul Pedersen of the Greater Sudbury Police Service (GSPS) took a knee with a crowd of hundreds in Memorial Park, June 3, in support of those protesting racism and police brutality. 

He did this to communicate without comment, that both he and the police force he represents is listening and will continue to listen until reform is achieved, he told in a later interview. GSPS has made great strides towards community cohesion, he said, especially in recent years, but if this protest told him anything, it is that further change is needed.

"We are nowhere close to where we need to be when we can see this kind of expression of  anti-racism of our very community here in Sudbury."

Police forces across the globe have been the subject of intense public scrutiny this past month, following several incidents involving uniformed officers, that many believe to be the latest instances of racially charged law enforcement. The death of George Floyd during an arrest by Minneapolis Police, being one of the most heavily publicized.

Like the countless who have been privy to Floyd's final moments, Pedersen said he's watched footage of the arrest and can provide no explanation to the actions displayed by those in uniform.

"For me, as a person who has been wearing a uniform for decades, it's absolutely disgraceful,” Pedersen said. “It's a criminal act. It undermines everything I stand for, everything all of our good officers and civilians stand for."

‘Protecting lives, not taking lives’

Marc Brunette, inspector and executive officer to the GSPS chief of police said he is also among the crowd of global citizens awaiting the results of the investigation into the acting officer, Derek Chauvin, charged with second-degree murder for his involvement. In his opinion, the actions displayed do not reflect the values of police service or that of local GSPS.

Brunette always wanted to be a police officer ever since he was young, he said, motivated like many, by the opportunity to help people and the community where he lives and works. 

"We're dedicated to service and protecting lives, not taking lives away. We’re in the profession of helping people."

As public servants paid from the public purse, police are governed by a standard of practice laid out in local, provincial, and federal regulations. These policies and procedures include those governing the use of force, said Brunette, federally through the Criminal Code of Canada, provincially through adequacy standards, and locally through service policy. 

But the code of conduct is not solely what governs the conduct of officers. Protecting lives is supposed to be so important to the men and women who wear a police uniform that they’re willing to put their own safety at risk for the benefit of others, Brunette said. 

It is a risk accepted willingly as a civil servant working for and in the best interests of the community it serves, the inspector said.

The observance of these regulations is overseen by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD). Peers can investigate peers for minor infractions, said Brunette, but events where a member of the public suffers a severe injury, sexual assault or death in relation to police intervention, require an arm’s-length, third-party intervention.

Incidents of this nature are then reviewed by one of several national civilian oversight bodies, including one governed provincially known as the Special Investigations Unit, said Brunette, to limit the chance of bias.

Good training, professional conduct

Reducing the need for this response all together comes down to education, starting at the Ontario Police College, Insp. Brunette said, but it doesn't stop there. 

Training takes place throughout an individual's career, both in the classroom and on the job, he said, but officers are also supposed to police, or at least influence, the behaviour of their fellow officers.

"We’ve really worked to create a culture that teaches, that encourages, and demands the interruption of unprofessional behaviour when it comes to actions of police officers,” Brunette said. “We’ve got some sound values that guide our behaviour and it’s no surprise that respect is amongst the top."

Alternative methods to avoid the use of force is a big part of this training, said Brunette, including hands-on techniques, the use of conducted energy weapons or firearms, and tactical communication. Of all these tactics, the inspector is proud to say communication is used most often, and a considerable factor in the positive relations between GSPS and the public. 

Being in the business of maintaining and building trust, Brunette said the police force takes protecting its relationships with residents very seriously. They can't do their jobs without public trust. 

Trust has been challenged

It is for this reason and the benefit of the public that considerable attention is paid to establishing GSPS as a community resource, Chief Pedersen explained, especially in the mind’s of Sudbury's diverse communities and youth. The police service was on the right trajectory prior to his arrival in 2014, he said, but there has also been a lot of new initiatives introduced since with the help of his supportive team.

GSPS has a list of outreach initiatives that form part of its community policing focus, including the intercultural ride-along program for international students and the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls strategy, both of which he said were introduced to encourage mutual understanding. Growth is also found locally through the critique and recommendations of the GSPS Diversity Advisory Committee, Aboriginal Advisory Council, and Community Youth Advisory Council, he said.

"All of those things are direct links into the police service that give me advice that I'm able to translate and pass onto the organization on how to work better."

In addition to working with these groups to achieve the most effective service delivery, GSPS actively collaborates with other organizations to address the holistic needs of an individual and the community. These partnerships are critical, said Pedersen, especially in instances involving homelessness, poverty or addictions, where law enforcement may be the least appropriate tool. 

"We're often called law enforcement, but I reject that because I think we're more important during the proactive community-building work. Law enforcement comes out when there has been a failure in a whole bunch of other systems."

With all this good work in mind, Pedersen said it is "disheartening" to think that the actions of police officers miles away could negatively impact the perception of local policing. This, however, has in no way discouraged his team from continuing to push towards encouraging respect and inclusivity within the city of Greater Sudbury. 

"There is no question that recent events challenge trust between the public and police," said Brunette.

‘What do we need to do to change?’

Preserving that public trust is paramount. Pedersen said GSPS will continue to build upon its pre-existing relationships and seek further counsel from its committees on what policies, practices or procedures need to be changed, he said. Two sets of recommendations have been given to committee members to guide this process, one being the Truth and Reconciliation report and the anti-racial profiling recommendations issued by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. 

GSPS will also be working with Laurentian University researchers, taking into consideration their findings on observed inequalities within the justice system, education, and workplace.

"I want our community to know that that wasn't just listening (on June 3), it's listening moving forward, engaging with diverse communities, engaging with our committees and asking those hard questions of ourselves — what do we need to do to change?"

Racism still exists in Sudbury, despite the best efforts of the community and its civil servants, but reports documenting this are few and far between. 

Members of our community still exhibit reluctance to report instances of what Pedersen described as "ineffective interaction" with police, or racist encounters in the community, he said. Online reporting was introduced to encourage people's comfort level in this regard, but he doesn't expect considerable uptake until more trust is established with members of Sudbury's diverse community.

"We can't address a problem that we don't know about and don't hear about, but it's difficult because to get the report, you have to have the trust in the first place."

It is, therefore, critical that members of the community report all incidents of this nature, even if it may not constitute a criminal offence. Charges may not be filed, said Pedersen, but with this information, GSPS can work with its community partners to provide alternative forms of support and help build a more inclusive community where everyone feels safe. 

"If a person is victimized, I want them to look to the policing uniform as help but I know we've got to still work on that."

"We are listening, we are open (to) suggestions and we are going to take action moving forward."

Keira Ferguson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

About the Author: Keira Ferguson, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

A graduate of both Laurentian University and Cambrian College, Keira Ferguson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter, funded by the Government of Canada, at
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