Edmonton police officers say more training needed to interact with Somali-Canadians

Junior officers with the Edmonton Police Service say they are not adequately trained to interact with members of the Somali-Canadian community, according to a report being presented Thursday to the police commission.

“The majority of constables, including beat officers, stressed that having more knowledge about the community would significantly help them in their day-to-day interactions,” reads the 34-page report, co-authored by Dr. Sandra Bucerius, a criminologist at the University of Alberta.

The findings are the result of 57 in-depth interviews with officers of various rank last year in a project approved by Chief Rod Knecht.

Most constables were not aware that Somali-Canadians are Muslim and did not have detailed knowledge of their culture, religion or immigration experiences, the report says.

‘Rules like that, we need to know them. No one teaches that stuff.’– EPS officer

One officer described how colleagues almost aggravated an arrest situation in which a suspect was agitated because a copy of the Qur’an was lying on the ground.

“The guy just wanted to pick it up,” said the officer in the report. “But my colleagues did not pick up on this, because they don’t know the rules. So, he got to pick up the (Qur’an) and was cooperating after.

“Rules like that, we need to know them. No one teaches that stuff.”

The report said while some officers described receiving cultural competency training, it was not usually specific to Somali-Canadians. They stressed it would be helpful to receive knowledge before taking on a new beat requiring community interaction.

“It would make our lives a lot easier,” said an officer. “We basically need to learn everything on the job, a lot of trial and error.”

Difficult relationship, but improving 

Researchers, who also interviewed 301 members of the Edmonton Somali community between 16 and 30, said the majority still describe the relationship with police as “difficult.” But relations have improved, they stated.

Both groups identified then-detective Bill Clark’s “infamous” public comments following a 2011 New Year’s Day shooting as a low point, but also a pivotal one, helping EPS more deliberately work to improve relations.

“An EPS homicide detective notoriously expressed frustration with the community’s apparent lack of cooperation with police investigations,” said the report, noting relations were already strained amid a rash of homicides of young men of Somali descent between 2008 and 2011.

Clark, who is now a staff sergeant, called it “absolutely ludicrous” that only one witness in a club, the downtown Papyrus that was full of people, provided a description of a suspect. He suggested if the community wouldn’t assist, the investigation would not advance.

Bill Clark

Controversial remarks about Edmonton’s Somali community in 2011 by then-detective Bill Clark are seen as a turning point in police-community relations.

Community leaders fired back. They said Clark unfairly put the onus on the community to solve the crime rather than asking why witnesses felt afraid to come forward. The acting police chief apologized to the community.

“Over time, many also realized that he had a point. And I think for the cops it might have been similar,,” one young Somali-Canadian told researchers. “So maybe this statement, which I still think was outrageous and racist, was necessary to get something going.”

“We haven’t been perfect in our interaction with the Somali community,” said one officer, while others referred to Clark’s comments as probably inappropriate and politically incorrect.

“I think from that point we’ve gotten better because of the efforts that have been put in,” said another member.

Not as far along as they think

One inspector described the shift that has occurred as going from “playing the big bad cop” to a strategy of reaching out to communities and building relationships, not just to solve crimes but to come up with preventive strategies and programs.

But officers told researchers that while senior members are striving to fix the relationship, “efforts may not be as far along as they might think” with “tension and misunderstandings” still arising on the front lines.

Said one officer: “They’ve definitely had a concerted effort from management to bridge that gap. Whether it has translated itself down to the street, I’m not so sure.”

‘They’ve definitely had a concerted effort from management to bridge that gap’– EPS officer

The discrepancy in perspectives could be partially explained by different experiences, said the report. Senior members are interacting with community leaders but patrol constables are engaging with victims or criminal suspects.

Three younger patrol officers expressed negative perceptions of the community, said authors, noting it “may influence why some officers initiate contact with Somali-Canadians, and the subsequent tone of these interactions.”

“(The Somali community is) the problem,” one officer stated. “They are the problem.”

Overall, researchers said there is a general understanding among police officers that an unreasonable use of force is not acceptable. But four relatively junior officers complained “the Chief does not understand what it means to work in the streets.”

More interaction needed

While the majority agreed EPS has strong community engagement and that it is key for good police work, lower ranking members stressed they are under-resourced, over-worked and constantly putting out fires.

“We can’t do community policing when we run from fire to fire,” said one officer.

A  majority of officers believed negative experiences with police in Somalia were a key reason why community members in Edmonton may view police negatively. But 85 per cent of the Somali-Edmontonians surveyed were born in Canada.

Of those from the diaspora surveyed, 78 percent agreed unsolved homicides are an issue for the Somali-Canadian community while 70 per cent identified the difficult relationship with police as another key issue.

The report said many officers emphasized the value of authentic caring and wanting to learn from the community.

But those in lower ranks called for community-based trainers rather than having, as one interviewee described it, “white officers come in and talk to us about the African community.”

The report also recommends EPS engage with a broader representation of the diaspora while expanding opportunities for junior officers to interact in a non-policing capacity. Some expressed the desire to learn more about the Somali-Canadian community, history and culture.

“It would be good to know that so you can at least, when you deal with these kids, you can at least say I’m not an expert but I can empathize.

This article was originally published in the CBC

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