Diane Colley-Urquhart worked tirelessly for the Calgary Police Commission for almost a decade, but she realized things would need to change after a group of female officers visited her home on a fall evening in 2016.
“I remember having 18 female police officers here in my living room, some of which phoned in on their phones, because they were too afraid to come,” the longtime city councillor said.
“But they really, really wanted to talk about the issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity within the Calgary Police Service.”
The Calgary Police Service (CPS) at the time was struggling with harassment within the force.
One woman even resigned from her job at the police commission’s meeting, breaking down into tears when describing the sexual harassment she had faced on the force.
Colley-Urquhart realized she would also need to leave her job with the commission. She resigned that year, making a public statement that she felt the police force was not taking seriously the many reports of harassment, bullying, and mistreatment.
“When issues [are] not dealt with, they’re limited on what they can do. It really became a malignancy in a way,” she explained.
The Calgary Police Service continues to struggle with low morale among its officers and staff. A recent survey found that half of all Calgary police employees said they would not recommend CPS as a career choice.
They cited burnout and understaffing as key issues causing poor morale.
The 2020 employee engagement survey included both sworn and civilian members of the CPS. Nearly 1,500 employees and officers, roughly half of the total workforce, took part in the survey.
Colley-Urquhart said she believes mistreatment in the workplace is a major cause of low morale within CPS. Specifically, she said officers face bullying and harassment as a result of a lack of diversity within the force.
She said that female officers she has spoken with receive fewer promotions and are not treated the same as their male counterparts. Female officers do not get the shift flexibility they need, so they must choose between their career or family, she said. This adds workplace stress and affects performance, meaning officers are not able to perform their duties to the best of their abilities.
“A lot of times that didn’t just affect [officers],” Colley-Urquhart said. “The morale and how they were treated and the lack of promotion affected families and it had a negative effect within the service.”
Staffing hasn’t kept pace
The police commission survey also heard nearly three quarters of employees feel CPS is understaffed, something Doug King, a Mount Royal University justice studies professor, believes stems from the profession becoming significantly less attractive in the past 20 years.
Calgary police staffing levels have remained relatively stagnant between 2017 and 2019, with only an additional 40 officers being sworn in, according to the most recent accountability report.
That’s only a 1.7 per cent increase in officer staffing, compared with a 3.6 per cent increase in Calgary’s population in that time.
Criminology graduates who used to apply for policing are now turning to careers as probation officers due to the better working conditions and no shift work, King said.
“By the time they finish in their four years, one or two per cent are thinking of [becoming officers]. They begin to realize there are other kinds of professions in the criminal justice system.”
Oftentimes, King said, a majority of CPS recruits apply straight out of high school due to requirements stating that a post secondary degree is not mandatory, leading to lack of diversity.
“If you actually increase qualifications, you may get a smaller pool of people applying, but you’ll have a stronger pool,” said King.
More education would create more diversity on the force, according to King, which in turn could help reduce discriminating factors and widen the current narrow view of acceptance which is held by officers.
“Police agencies have a hard time understanding why people of diverse backgrounds just don’t want to be [cops]. The internal stuff turns them off,” said King.
Scharie Tavcer researches law enforcement from a gender lens at Mount Royal University. She said though CPS is making progress towards a more diverse recruitment process, there’s struggle to change.
“It’s really hard to turn that boat towards a more diverse representation as a whole,” Tavcer said. “If you don’t work on the mindset and the culture within the police service, those minority groups are not going to be welcomed or feel invited to apply.”
Colley-Urquhart is still part of city council, representing Ward 13. She said her ward and the neighbouring one are short by about 150 police officers in total.
She feels this issue is compounded by the fact that police are performing duties that should be covered by community programs, such as addressing mental health and addiction.
“There are a lot more community organizations that need to step up and do these things, so the policing team [can] do their work,” Colley-Urquhart said.
Tavcer said understaffing paired with an underfunded budget can lead to burnout, as does repeated exposure to trauma.
“Burnout is the physical and emotional exhaustion that workers can experience when they have low job satisfaction and feel powerless and overwhelmed,” Tavcer said.
Tavcer says these feelings generated by burnout can then lead to a rise in post-traumatic stress disorder, which can then create unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Burnout is a growing challenge
This issue has become more prevalent in the last few decades, according to Dwayne Clayden, who served on the Calgary Police Service in the early 1980s before leaving to pursue a career as a paramedic.
Clayden said that he was treated with a level of respect from even the worst criminals he booked.
Today, Clayden believes Calgary police see violent crimes more frequently than they did when he was on the force.
“I don’t recall ever going to work fearing for my life or ever feeling that when I walked out the door, that might be the last time,” he said.
The Calgary Journal asked Chief Const. Mark Neufeld for an interview but he was unavailable.
CPS: Resources are there
Stacey Ferland, executive director of CPS health and wellness division, said since she started at CPS more than three years ago, she has seen improvement in how burnout and harassment are handled internally.
Although she believes they are doing well, the police service “is certainly not where we need to be right now.”
Ferland, a registered counsellor specializing in trauma and PTSD within law enforcement, said she believes a change in executive leadership in CPS has helped immensely.
“I think with the new executive team… they take these reports very, very seriously.”
Mental health resources are now offered to all CPS employees, both sworn and civilian, Ferland said. Calgary police are also offering preventative training and health checks to help officers recognize symptoms of burnout so they can seek treatment.
“We’ve got officers that talk freely about seeing someone in [the] psychological therapy section, and that encourages others to come forward and know that they’re not broken,” Ferland said.
The chief, she noted, has also created a gender advisory committee, and the city has launched a new anti-racism committee.
Colley-Urquhart said she takes heart in the improvements, but continues to keep a close eye on the police service.
“I’ve always believed in community-based policing. You need the officers working with members of the community,” she said.