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Calgary police chief delays enforcement of thin blue line directive

Calgary’s police chief said they will pause a further decision on the thin blue line patch as they continue to engage with both rank and file police officers and members of the community.

The Calgary Police Commission directed officers on March 30 to stop wearing the patch on their uniforms.  Later, the CPC said they were frustrated to learn that more patches were being handed out to Calgary police officers.

Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld said he was away on business when the CPC decision came down.

“This is a very complicated situation,” he said.

“Like most things, it’s way more complex than it would appear at the surface and I don’t have to tell anybody that complex things have become even more complicated during the pandemic.”

But Chief Neufeld believed the thin blue line patch response is the manifestation of a strained relationship between the CPC and Calgary police. He also noted staffing challenges, morale, Covid-19 enforcement, and “countless protests and demonstrations” have taken a toll.

“They (officers) feel that a number of issues have been raised but not acknowledged,” Neufeld said.

“And we have progressively moved down a road where goodwill has become in short supply. And the most recent decision in relation to the thin blue line was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The Chief said he acknowledges the decision made by the CPC, and his responsibility to implement it. He didn’t think, given the size of the service and nature of the issue, that the timeline was realistic. He also didn’t think the CPC anticipated the reaction from the Calgary Police Association.

Coopting of important police symbol

Chief Neufeld said that the thin blue line symbol, which honours the fallen in the line of duty, has particular importance to members. CPS Sgt. Andrew Harnett was killed in the line of duty on New Year’s Eve in 2020. That pain is still with many members of the Service, he said.

“So you can get some sense of how important we take the honour the fallen aspect of the blue line symbol with respect to service to the community,” Neufeld said.

“It has long been the hallmark of the Calgary Police Service.”

The issue for many, as the Chief has previously acknowledged, is the symbol’s coopting by groups with nefarious aims.

At recent protests, LWC has been unable to identify how many officers’ uniforms bore thin blue line patches. Anecdotally, very few have appeared in photographs taken of police over several weekends.

Anti-mandate protesters have flown the thin blue line flags during their protests. Many have associated a racist element with these protests given some of the other emblems present.  

A thin blue line flag was hoisted during a recent anti-mandate, anti-government protest in Calgary. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

At a recent protest on the first day of Ramadan, a speaker was watched by a person at City Hall wearing a Crusader costume.

The patch itself has also been taken by white supremacy groups. It also has a connection to racial incidents with North American police services, particularly in Los Angeles.

When asked, Chief Neufeld said it does concern him that some officers may not see the impact that symbol has on some members of the community.

Still, some CPS members from racialized communities have come forward and said the negative feeling around the thin blue line isn’t representative of their community,” he said.

“And so it is difficult to try to, I think, reconcile the various different perspectives on it,” Neufeld said.

Walcott disappointed by the defiance

Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott, who sits as a member of the CPC, said this has become an emotional conversation.

It’s a question of trust in Calgary police for some citizens, he said on Monday.

“When you have citizens actively trying to share with the people that represent them, how something impacts them, how it impacts their trust in their relationship that they have with the CPS, and then to have an active divide, it challenges people’s ability to trust; trust …the chain of command and to really trust the people that are still choosing to wear… the patch,” Walcott said.

Walcott said that he wonders if awareness around the patch’s emotional impact is understood.

“They, of course, know the emotional weight behind it for officers, but do they know the emotional weight behind it for the public,” he asked.

“If they do, then that speaks a lot to the decisions that are being made, that will have to be conversations to be had at (police) commission.”

Walcott said much of what comes next is in Chief Neufeld’s hands.

Neufeld said they hope to continue conversations over the next two weeks.

“What you’re seeing is an existing conflict that has been unresolved and it’s boiled over. I ask the community for your patience and continued support while we work through these important issues,” he said.

“If we can do that, I believe that the patches will come off the uniforms voluntarily.”

The Calgary Police Commission response

On Tuesday afternoon, the Calgary Police Commission provided a response to the Chief’s comments.

They said they stand by their decision to have the symbol removed. They do understand the positive symbolism for police but acknowledge the issues for others in Calgary.

“This has never been a question of whether police officers are wearing the symbol with good intentions, it was a decision taken because the symbol’s meaning is mixed and lands differently on a significant number of people in our city,” said Commission Chair Shawn Cornett.

The statement went on to say they understand the road to compliance will take time.

“The Commission wants, as much as possible, to work with officers to gain voluntary compliance and buy-in rather than enforced compliance,” it read.

Should compliance be a problem down the road, Chief Neufeld said they’d have to look at other measures. It’s not about weaponizing the situation, he said.

“This is about trying to use respect and compassion and work with our employees, who we respect and value, to get this to a better place,” he said.