With more public debate about police officers’ use of force and relations between visible minorities and police forces, The News took a data-driven look at how Abbotsford’s police department uses force and reflects its community. This is one of three pieces on those topics. For the others, click the links at the bottom of the story.
Abbotsford is one of the most diverse municipalities in Canada, but its police department remains largely white.
Figures compiled by the Abbotsford Police Department’s recruiting officer and released to The News suggest that only about 14 per cent of the force’s officers aren’t white, compared to about 38 per cent of the city’s population.
The APD is trying to change that disparity, the force says, but doing so will take time because of the force’s low turnover.
Police forces and how they interact with visible minorities – particularly those of Black and Indigenous descent in Canada – have come under significant scrutiny in recent months. The APD hasn’t been immune from that. The Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner (OPCC) currently has at least two open investigations regarding interactions between minorities and officers.
Figures released to The News earlier this month show that Black and Indigenous people and people of Middle Eastern descent report police misconduct to the OPCC at much higher rates than whites – although those figures are for all the 14 police forces for which the OPCC has oversight, and not for the APD in particular.
The force’s strategic plan includes a specific goal to increase diversity so the force reflects the community it serves.
But the APD remains largely white, despite efforts.
According to “anecdotal data” compiled by the force’s recruiting officer and provided to The News in June, only 34 of 237 officers of the APD’s officers were visible minorities or Indigenous. Of those, just 18 of the force’s 237 officers were of a South Asian background in June. To accurately reflect the size of Abbotsford’s South Asian community, which comprises about one-quarter of the city’s population, the APD would need close to 60 South Asian officers.
In releasing the figures, the APD warned that “because this information was not captured by any formal means, we cannot speak to or authenticate the accuracy. While at this time we do not ask our members to self-identify their ethnicity, we are considering the value of this information and how this data might possibly be best collected in a standardized manner going forward.”
Deputy Chief Paulette Freill and spokesperson Sgt. Judy Bird say the APD is trying to build a diverse group of officers, but doing so will take time.
But Freill said the APD and other municipal police forces don’t employ proactive hiring to increase diversity.
“Unlike the federal government, where they have an employment equity program, we don’t do that here because we don’t have employment equity programs in the municipal departments – we’re too small,” Freill told The News.
Instead, the APD focuses its community-recruiting efforts on events and populations where it can reach residents from all backgrounds, Bird said.
“We go to different events that are multicultural and we bring our recruiters out all the time,” Bird said. “We go to many events to try to make sure we include different areas of our community.”
Bird said it’s difficult to quickly transform the force, and many recruits never actually end up becoming officers.
“It takes a while to get hired and there are reasons why. Though we want to be diverse, we also want to make sure our community is safe and our officers are ethical. And that is why there is such a rigorous process. And many of our recruits don’t make it through that process.”
She said background checks stop many recruits from becoming officers.
The APD’s low turnover rate also means there aren’t many vacancies to fill, Bird said.
“We don’t have a lot of members leaving. We had one member leaving last year, and he came back.”
The lack of diversity can also be seen at the top of the force, where just one of 10 APD officers in upper management isn’t white. (Three are female.)
That is a consequence, Bird said, of how long it takes for officers to make it to the top of a police department.
“To get into upper management, you are usually here for 20 to 30 years,” she said. “Twenty to 30 years ago we were a small department; we were still Matsqui [Police Department]. We had 70 people.
“When it comes to upper management and inspectors, it will happen; it’s just going to take some time.”
Freill said the APD’s programs that provide employment opportunities and an introduction to policing are one way the force is trying to better reflect Abbotsford.
“We’re getting a lot of younger people coming into those programs who aren’t ready yet to be police officers but we’re training them as operational support officers and reserve constables and that’s a pathway into our organization.”
Reserve constables are extensively trained and supervised volunteers with “limited peace officer” status. Operation support officers, meanwhile, are paid employees who similarly have limited peace officer status and can assist with things like traffic control, collection of statements, security and handling of property.
“I think almost 90 per cent of our reserves are South Asian and we’re looking at a lot of those folks to come into our recruiting process. We train them and we’re going to mentor them along that way,” Freill said.
“They get a real taste of what police work’s all about and that’s far more enticing to young people.”
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