In a wide-ranging interview with Touch BASE editor Robin Arthur, Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais talks of recruitment initiatives to make the force culturally representative, and also shares his views on what it takes to effectively police in a multicultural society.
TB: In the last twenty years the demographic face of Halifax has changed. Apparently, that has been a challenge for Halifax Regional Police. It obviously has involved some restructuring to make the police service culturally competent. What was the challenge like? How much has changed in the policing operations these twenty years?
Chief Blais: Over the last few decades, Canadian policing has seen significant changes. Halifax Regional Police (HRP) is no different from most mid-size Canadian police services in that sense.
When Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) was formed in 1996, the police services of Halifax, Bedford and Dartmouth were amalgamated to form HRP. To be culturally competent, HRP has strived to become culturally representative of the communities it serves.
In fact, a recent CBC study indicated that HRP is the only Canadian police service that fully represents the community it serves. We achieved this through active recruiting initiatives which continue to this day.
Over the years, HRP has benefited from the value of engaging those individuals who, because of the cost and distance involved in initial cadet training (normally held in a police training academy outside of Nova Scotia), might be hesitant to pursue a career in policing.
This approach will inform our Police Science Program being initiated in 2019. The training will be held locally and at a reduced cost. Our goal will be to supplement our ranks with cadets from diverse demographics as well as women who, unfortunately, are the most under-represented group in policing today.
Other initiatives have been undertaken and will continue to be emphasized such as the Police Diversity Working Group, which is comprised of community leaders from diverse community groups, including the 2SLGBTQ community.
This group provides feedback and guidance to police in HRM, both HRP and Halifax District RCMP. Specific to HRP, Fair and Impartial Policing training has been given to all police officers and many civilian employees to assist them in understanding those human biases that may contribute and deter from effective decision-making processes. Much work is still to come.
TB: Some years ago, you introduced a DIVERSITY UNIT into the police service. What does this unit do to facilitate policing in a multicultural society? I understand that through this unit, among other things, HRP is engaged with multi faith and diverse communities and is working to enhance the organization’s own diversity. . Do you want to give our readers a sense of how the DIVERSITY UNIT of the police service works and what progress it has made in multicultural policing?
Chief Blais: I’m pleased to say we’ve had an Equity Diversity Officer since 2004. Our 2018-19 budget, once approved, will see an increase of an additional member into this unit.
Over the years, Halifax has seen a marked increase in diversity, and with it the emergence of many diasporic communities and faith groups. To respond effectively, the Equity Diversity Officer’s role has had to evolve to ensure that our various diasporic, minority, and marginalized communities have a connection point to their police service.
To effectively police in a multicultural society, police and community need to develop common points of reference, understanding and communication. The community needs to understand their rights and the role of police in Canadian society. Equally important, the police needs to understand the customs, traditions and cultural differences that are unique to each group.
This reciprocal exchange improves trust and allows for respectful interactions between police and our various multicultural communities. It’s important to realize it’s not just the Equity Diversity Officer who is responsible for this outreach but every officer, including myself as Chief.
Our Equity Diversity Officer acts like the quarterback to guide our strategy. He also provides guidance to senior management and direct liaison in dealing with various community issues, including Halifax Pride, recruitment and outreach for various communities who, because of their size, would normally have limited interactions with police.
TB: About a decade ago, I understand that Halifax reported a high crime rate and that was attributed to the fact that this was a port city. Is that fact still true? Has the city’s growing newcomer population impacted on the crime rate? If yes, in which areas of crime?
Chief Blais: It is true that in the mid-2000s, there were some significant challenges around public safety and community wellness in our city, as documented in the 2007 Mayor’s Roundtable on Violence.
As can be appreciated, there is not one single reason for the challenges of the time or even today. Like any other city of our size, poverty, income inequality and certain social factors that can drive crime exist here as well.
I believe that being a port city is in fact a tremendous economic and regional development advantage, which should rightfully contribute to the long-term wellness of all our communities.
However, it is also true that as a municipality grows, so, too, do the factors that could lead to crime for a variety of reasons. It has been documented that in Western society, crime rates have been slowly dropping since 1992.
We have seen the same trend here in Halifax. There is no one single reason and better policing is just one of the many contributing factors behind the decrease in crime. However, crime may have simply morphed from an in-person activity to an online one.
As a result, crime may just have migrated in a higher proportion to the online sphere. One study out of Britain showed that 80 percent of people had been victimised online, either through fraud, identity theft, harassment or any other way to illegally obtain or compromise people’s assets or personal information.
TB: Are African-Nova Scotians and native aboriginals even now over-represented in our prisons? What are the real crime issues that the police service is challenged with? How is this being addressed?
Chief Blais: Yes, African-Nova Scotians and indigenous Canadians are unfortunately still over-represented in our prisons as compared to their respective populations, not only here in Nova Scotia, but throughout Canada.
Historical issues around poverty, education, health and maginalisation have all contributed to this. As part of the justice system and overall social support network, many other stakeholders have a role to play in holistically supporting and intervening for members of vulnerable communities.
Unfortunately the reality is that police oftentimes end up being the first intervenor. That means we can also benefit from the skill sets to not only intervene when a crime has occurred, but also to be able to assist in preventing those contributing factors from overtaking the resilience or social capital of these communities as well as the skills of individuals to deal with them.
Participating in initiatives based on restorative justice principles as a means to divert offenders from the formal justice system is one way in which police can play a role. Our collective challenge is to have the entire justice system on board working together in support of this.
Being an active participant in community service hubs is also critical to preventing some of the issues that lead to continued participation in crime as well as victimisation. Basically, getting people the services they need to ensure their basic needs are met and to allow them to benefit from the opportunities that are present in society is key to preventing further criminality or victimisation.
TB: I understand that you have lectured extensively on matters dealing with problem employees, unexpected events, the legal obligations of the employer, sustainability of policing in Canada and mental health in policing. How is Halifax doing in these areas from a policing point of view?
Chief Blais: Halifax is actually in a very good position. There is a saying that ‘What happens there, matters here.’ In this highly interconnected world, we see events occur in real time half-way across the planet.
We also tend to integrate those events into our own mind-set, so if there are abuses or crimes occurring elsewhere, be it in the United States, Africa or Russia, we think they can and do occur here.
I have spent a considerable amount of time working on United Nations missions in Haiti, a place that has been struck by multiple disasters, be they natural, environmental or man-made. Significant crime occurs there in ways we could only imagine here. But life continues and there is some very positive developments and initiatives in place in the middle of some of the worst conditions imaginable.
However, one does not need to go to Haiti to see extreme poverty or community pain. Here in Canada, there are communities that have known extreme insecurity and adversity. That does not mean that we, in Halifax, have nothing to worry about. We are, indeed, fortunate. But there is still lots of work to be done before we can say that we have created a community where everyone’s dignity is not only respected, but advanced and celebrated.
TB: Going forward, how do you see our society growing, creating positive change over the next ten years? What kind of a future do you see for the city within that time frame?
Chief Blais: The future is bright for Halifax; the challenge will be to ensure that everyone is able to benefit from the growth and positive changes in our municipality. That also includes community safety and well-being.
Will we be able to ensure that our children are able to grow and benefit from the changes that are coming? Society is evolving faster now than ever before and those changes will only intensify. The challenge will be for us to ensure that our ability to grapple with the complexity of those changes will also increase and that we do so together as one.