Opinion: Calgary police need to expand the Indigenous liaison program

In November of 2020, one of our Indigenous Organizers wrote an opinion editorial through the Calgary Herald. You can view it here.

We are not asking for the police to be defunded. We are asking for more funding for this very successful program. More Indigenous liaison officers would be a meaningful step towards reconciliation and towards building trust between police and Indigenous people.

Needless to say, trust is currently lacking. Indigenous people consistently face suspicion from the police. As a middle-aged Indigenous professional and mother, I have been pulled over and asked by the police, “Where did you get your Jeep?” I have to justify the fact that, yes, I have a relatively new vehicle. No, it is not stolen.

At the end of this month, the documentary No Visible Trauma (previously called Above the Law) will be showing at the Calgary Underground Film Festival. It has a chilling clip where Clayton Prince, an Indigenous man, gets down on the ground, in broad daylight, close to Chinook Centre. He puts his hands behind his head and very clearly surrenders to Calgary police. The police jump on him and beat him, breaking ribs and puncturing a lung. All after he surrendered. You then hear a senior police officer explaining to a recruit that what she saw “did not happen.” It was just “street justice” being dispensed by a few officers.

Too many Indigenous men and women have experienced “street justice” at the hands of the police. This has to stop, and new relationships must be built.

Calgary currently has one Indigenous liaison officer. His name is Const. Alan Chamberlain and he is amazing. He is respected by the elders. He is respected by the community. He has the incredibly large task of improving relationships between police and Indigenous residents. We recently sat down with representatives from Calgary police, including Deputy Chief Katie McLellan, and she admitted they are worried they are going to burn out a very good officer.

Calgary needs more than one Indigenous liaison officer. It needs at least one for each district. Chamberlain needs a team of people to work with him, to help him train his fellow officers on how to better interact with Indigenous people. There can no longer be “street justice.” The Calgary Police Service says its seven core values are respect, honesty, compassion, courage, fairness, accountability and integrity. Indigenous people, just like all Calgarians, need to see these values lived out every time they interact with Calgary police.

We are also convinced that more Indigenous liaison officers will lower crime rates and save lives. The statistics about how Indigenous people are over-policed and under-protected are chilling. Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to be murdered or to go missing than any other woman in Canada.

As an Indigenous mother of two, these statistics are all too real. A few years ago my eldest daughter went missing and I was terrified. A friend told me, call Alan. Alan listened to my story, heard my concern for my daughter, made some calls. He did all of this on his day off. My daughter was found. Alan has the relationships and the knowledge of the community to do truly effective community policing.

That Calgary police have admitted that they are willing to explore new ways of policing is encouraging. Let’s start by building on the success of the Indigenous liaison officer program. But let’s stop pretending that one officer can do this job all on their own. We need at least one in each district.

Suzanne Karhiio Dzus is a longtime community leader, facilitator and consultant. She started the March for Missing and Murdered Women in Calgary, has facilitated reconciliation events and is currently completing her master’s in intercultural communications. She serves as the co-chair of the Calgary Alliance for the Common Good’s Reconciliation Team.