File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS The Calgary Police Service headquarters signage is seen in Calgary.

Report on use of force by Calgary police stresses better training, mental health

CALGARY — A wide-ranging report on the Calgary Police Service’s use of force stresses the need for continuous on-the-job training, speedier reviews of fatal confrontations and a better understanding of mental illness.

The independent review by retired Court of Queen’s Bench chief justice Neil Wittmann released Tuesday makes 65 recommendations aimed at both the police force and provincial agencies.

Wittmann wants patrol officers on the front lines to have annual training on how to de-escalate intense situations.

“It’s not good enough to do it on a one-off basis, to say, ‘Well, I took that training in 2017 or 2018’ and then for 2022 to roll around and you haven’t done it again,” he said.

The police force does a good job reinforcing hard skills, such as using firearms or physical techniques.

“What is not done is an emphasis on what they call the soft skills — that is trying to get a police officer into a position where he or she is not required to use force,” Wittmann said.

From 2012 to 2017, there were 21 shootings by Calgary police officers that killed eight people and injured 10. Between 2015 and 2017, Wittmann said less than one per cent of police interactions involved any force.

He did not delve into how that compared to other Canadian cities.

During the past year, Wittmann said he personally interviewed 190 people, including officers, families of those affected, mental-health experts and academics.

Wittmann’s report flagged delays in reviewing situations where police used force and urges more resources for the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, the provincial police watchdog, as well as for the medical examiner.

He said it takes an average of three years between a lethal police encounter and a fatality report.

“That’s unacceptable and I’ve recommended that the province insert some timelines to get these things done quicker.”

The review said police should work with Alberta Health Services to ensure officers know if they’ll be responding to a call involving someone with mental-health problems.

“It is incumbent on the police to acknowledge that this is now a critical component of their job,” Wittmann wrote in the review.

His report also recommended all front-line patrol officers carry conducted energy weapons, pepper spray and batons in addition to handguns. He said the use of body-worn cameras should be monitored.

Wittmann said morale within the police service plays an important role because an officer who is unhappy on the job is not in the right mindset to handle a dangerous situation.

This could be addressed by emphasizing good news stories including publicizing acts of heroism caught on body cameras, he suggested.

Police Chief Roger Chaffin said the service is already acting on many of the recommendations. The greatest challenges involve overhauling training and rethinking the approach to mental illness and addiction.

He said he takes no issue with any of Wittmann’s findings.

“Sanctity of life is the overarching principle to policing,” Chaffin said. “Our goal obviously is not to end people’s lives.”

Calgary Police Commission chairman Brian Thiessen said he’s expecting the province to be receptive to the recommended changes.

“For the province, it’s a large undertaking at a time when they’re very busy, but they’re hearing loud and clear from policing organizations, chiefs and commission oversight bodies that Police Act reform is imperative.”

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said she’s still reviewing the report, but she knows there’s a desire to update the Police Act, which has only seen piecemeal amendments in 30 years.

“We will be consulting with our municipal and policing partners across the province on a review in the near future,” she said in a statement.

Calgary Police Association president Les Kaminski said he’s also reviewing the report and the union is interested to see how the police service will adopt the recommendations.

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