Police Commissioners put pointed questions to Calgary police on Wednesday, surrounding the shooting death of Latjor Tuel on Saturday, Feb. 19.
Calgary Police Service Chief Constable Mark Neufeld was questioned on what constitutes standard deseclation practices by the service. He was also asked about the appropriateness of the police response to the reported assault that led to Tuel’s death.
The discussion was added to the commission’s agenda at the request of Coun. Courtney Walcott.
“For the most part, the overall goal of what’s the direction of these questions, were really to have this series of high level conversations on some of these structural issues,” said Coun. Walcott.
Chief Neufeld was reluctant to answer questions directly in relation to Saturday’s events, citing the ongoing investigation by the province’s Alberta Serious Incident Response Team. ASIRT is the province’s civilian-led organization is responsible for the independent investigation of serious incidents by police officers in Alberta.
The Chief said that the officers involved in Saturday’s incident with Tuel were wearing body cameras, and that this was turned over to ASIRT as part of the investigation. He said that these would be presented as a part of any court proceedings should those come as a result of the investigation.
Standards for, but no standard response to deescalation
Coun. Walcott asked for clarification surrounding what constitutes standard deescalation efforts at CPS.
Chief Neufeld said that there was no standard response to deescalating incidents to which police respond. The police service has standards in place for training and the use of force.
“In terms of tactics, officers are trained in everything from empty hand tactics where they put their hand on somebody’s shoulder to effect an arrest, all the way up to week before so they’re, they’re trained in all of those things.”
Chief Neufeld said that police officers are often responding to incidents with far less information than they would like, and that this affects what sort of resources police deploy.
“The gold standard, or the hope, would be to be able to have the best amount of information and the best amount of time and the best amount of support from the community or people that that maybe know the individuals involved, to be able to take the time and take a very trauma informed approach to communicating in a way that’s empathetic and reassuring,” he said.
“But it simply doesn’t always unfold that way.”
Chief Neufeld said that the response by officers is dictated by the speed of how fast a situation escalates, or deescalates, and how respondent individuals are to police. He said that, speaking generally, response to situations like the one that occurred on Saturday, that the goal was to contain individuals by restricting their mobility for the safety of officers and the public.
“In the case where you do have somebody in possession of a weapon in a public place, that individual is arrestable. That’s part of the police tactics to use a combination of tactics and communication to isolate and contain, and then obviously speak to the person to try and develop a rapport to get them to give up the weapon. So that’s that’s what officers responding to a situation like that would be thinking about in every case,” he said.
He said that the presence of a weapon, like a knife, serves as a barrier to deescalation.
Police say assailant behaviour dictates response
Chief Neufeld responded to questions by Coun. Walcott about how the presence of weapons dictates responses. He said there wasn’t a simple “if this, then that” answer. If the individual was considered an assailant, someone actively attempting to harm officers or members of the public, that would dictate the use of force.
“We’re talking now about very risky behaviour, and we’re talking about where an officer would be able to use higher levels of force, for sure,” said Chief Neufeld.
Coun. Walcott asked Chief Neufeld if the diversity of backgrounds was taken into account by officers doing policing in northeast Calgary.
“Just to provide a little context, the area that stands out for me the most is kind of the potential trigger event that a K9 unit might be for someone with a very particular background,” he said.
Speaking to the lack of information that comes in from an initial call to emergency services, Chief Neufeld said that the officers responding to a call from a stranger wouldn’t have as much detailed information as police would like.
“Sometimes you actually don’t have very much information specifically in relation to the person’s background, or what could be triggers, or what could be helpful,” he said.
“Initially, when you’re in the stabilization mode, it is very difficult, and all of it depends also on people being able to communicate, and how fast things escalate or deescalate, or how long they go on.”
Commissioner pushes back on the use of police dog
Speaking to the use of K9 units, the Chief said that in an escalating or already escalated situation, the use of a police dog is useful for deescalation. He said that like when an officer displays a taser, the presence of a police dog can indicate to an individual the severity of the situation they find themselves in. He said that police dogs are also useful to prevent somebody fleeing and further escalating a situation.
Commissioner Heather Campbell strongly disagreed with the dogs as a deescalation tool.
“For centuries, Europeans and Canadians have used police dogs as a tool for racial terror and conquest,” she said.
“So in the police-involved shooting on February 19, was it appropriate to use a canine unit who was trained to attack as a deescalation tool with a member of a racialized community, given this understanding of our history, and our collective—and when I say ‘our’ I mean the commission and CPS collective use of an anti racist lens?”
Chief Neufeld did not answer the question, stating that this would be a question for the ASIRT investigation to determine.
‘Unsafe and unserved’
Commissioner Campbell addressed allegations made by Taylor McNallie on social media that a police officer on Saturday at the scene of Tuel’s death was wearing a thin blue line patch, by asking Chief Neufeld if this was the case.
“As a black woman, I know that I would be left feeling both unsafe and unserved if the officer who attends the shooting of a member of my community is wearing an insignia that is a direct counter to the black community and the Black Lives Matter movement,” she said.
“That is the intent and the heart of that question.”
Chief Neufeld would not confirm the authenticity of that claim.
“I did see the image that you’re speaking of there on a social media feed of a local activist, and that’s somebody to my knowledge that has a strong bias against the police,” said Chief Neufeld.
“I can tell you we’ve had extensive conversations between the service and the Commission around the topic of thin blue line and those are continuing. But what I what I also would say to you is that I myself have had numerous conversations over the last number of days with members of the community, and a number of things have come up, a number of which you’ve raised in the discussion here, and that has not come up at all.
“So at the end of the day, I give you that just as factual information, but that has not been an issue that’s been raised by outside of the activist community even once.”
Chief Neufeld didn’t answer a question on who he had met following Saturday’s incident. He agreed to reveal that information to the commission during the closed portion of their session.
Addressing gaps in policing
Commissioner Marilyn North Peigan brought up the larger issues of policing and her belief that this would require greater examination of the frameworks of law enforcement in the country.
“We have to take a step back and see how we’re failing these individuals as a community,” she said.
Chief Neufeld pushed back on this in relation to Saturday’s shooting. He asked “but again, with the greatest of respect, what gaps are we seeing right now in relation to this situation?”
“I guess it just sort of takes me a little bit back that there’s so many people that have it figured out already before the investigation.”
Coun. Walcott said that this was not about a singular situation. It was about a continuing pattern of lethal force that had to be addressed.
“So I understand the sensitivity of this particular shooting, but I think it’s very significant we acknowledge that the structures of policing have always lended themselves to gaps when it comes to mental health supports,” he said.
The Chief acknowledged this, and said that the rawness of the situation has led to frustrations for the community and for the police service.
“We did make the commitments that we talked about in terms of anti racism and finding ways to address gaps in the in the crisis response system, and that’s, that’s really important work to us,” he said.
“So it feels some days like we’re the ones doing the lifting, and all of a sudden when there’s an incident that happens, then it feels like the blame is on the police.”