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CRRC Hosts "Tough Conversation" with Police Chief

Written by
Leina Amatsuji-Berry
August 5, 2020
CRRC Hosts "Tough Conversation" with Police Chief
Photo Courtesy of

On Monday July 27, Peterborough Police Service (PPS) Chief Scott Gilbert joined Community Race Relations Committee (CRRC) Executive Director Angela Connors as part of the “Tough Conversations with Peterborough Police” Instagram live event series. The series began on June 29 in light of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement across the United States and Canada.

Chief Gilbert is relatively new to the PPS, having come to Peterborough in 2018 after 38 years with the Toronto Police Service (TPS). He was the TPS Superintendent at the time of his appointment to the PPS, but held many positions within the TPS over the years.

Chief Gilbert had originally wanted to go to university for medicine in his postsecondary education, he told Connors.

“But there’s two things you learn in life, generally after the fact: one, you need money to do things; and two, you probably should’ve spent less time on your sports career and more on the academics,” he said with a smile.

While Chief Gilbert was in college studying to become a jail guard and working at the East Scarborough Boys and Girls Club, he saw an hiring ad for police cadets in the newspaper.

“I was looking at getting some college upgrading, and then down the road after working for a bit, having some money put away to go back to school and go to university, because that was what I wanted,” he said.

Chief Gilbert said he initially believed the job to be “a good way to make $12,000 a year at the time,” with that being the top pay for a cadet. According to the Bank of Canada inflation calculator, $12,000 in 1980 (the year he began his police career) is equivalent to $37,503.42 in 2020’s Canadian dollars.

“You get used to having that income, that’s part of it,” he explained, “but I also found that I enjoyed what I was doing and I felt I could make a difference, so I stuck with it.”

He has only looked back at doing medicine instead of policing once, in 1988, he said, but decided to continue his work with the TPS after being promoted. The birth of his first child with his wife in 1990 also solidified his career track. His grandfather had also been a police officer in Toronto, and one of his cousins worked for the TPS before moving to the Bowmanville police (now under Durham Regional Police Service’s jurisdiction).

“Wow, that’s a big difference, medicine and policing,” said Connors.

“Well, it is when you think about the two disciplines, but the reality is that both of them are centred around helping people,” Chief Gilbert explained.

“Policing in Toronto is obviously quite a bit different than policing in Peterborough. What are the main things that you see as different?” Connors asked.

“Policing, wherever you are, is all about relationships and building relationships,” he said. “You have to be adaptable to the needs of the community, but you also have to build relationships with the community.

“We police only with the consent of the public. The police don’t draft the laws, the governments do. Whether they’re provincial or federal, they draft the legislation, and that’s at the behest of the people,” he continued. “If we’re not in touch with what the public wants, or what the public needs us to do, then, really, we’re an occupying army and that’s not what we want to be.”

As an example, Chief Gilbert noted that when he worked in Toronto, the TPS was called the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force. However, its name changed to the Toronto Police Service in 1998 in part to “reflect our approach to policing,” according to the Toronto Police Ontario website.

Scott Gilbert during his time at the Toronto Police Service.

Connors then recounted that Chief Gilbert had said coming to Peterborough as an opportunity to “add value to the community” when he spoke with Global News in 2018 about taking his position with PPS.

“So, how have you added value to the community of Peterborough since you’ve been here?” she asked.

“I like to think that I’ve been working towards building those relationships and making sure that our members, both civilian and sworn, are following the mission that we have to be a community-based police service providing the highest quality service that we can to the community,” he replied.

Chief Gilbert also stated that he was tasked with the mental health portfolio while with the TPS, and was originally coming to Peterborough because he had previously assisted with Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams (MCITs) and wellness checks. Since he has been working in Peterborough, he has been working to expand that programming.

“Mental health is a problem across Canada, and the unfortunate part is the legislation only authorizes police officers to do certain things when somebody’s in crisis,” Chief Gilbert explained. “And to send an armed officer in to deal with somebody in crisis all the time is not necessarily the correct thing to do, but unfortunately right now the legislation is that we’re the only ones that can apprehend somebody against their will and take them to a hospital for treatment.”

MCITs instead involve a police officer working with a nurse or a social worker that “helps with those apprehensions,” he said. Chief Gilbert’s work to expand MCITs involves having crisis and mental health workers on every PPS shift through the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

“The other thing that we’re working on is trying to improve our technology, and improving our technology improves our service delivery to the community,” he said, with the goal of decreasing response times. “We had people waiting 30 and 40 hours in some instances to report crime.”

Despite the PPS budget being “about eight or nine percent” of the City budget, the Service faces technological challenges, he said.

Chief Gilbert also mentioned his involvement in the in-car camera project for the TPS. The PPS 2021 budget accounts for the acquisition of both in-car cameras and body-worn cameras, so that officers may be “accountable to the public for everything we do,” he said.

“I understand that there’s been a surplus over the last couple of years. Is there any reason why that wasn’t used up to this point to address some of these technology issues?” Connors asked.

“The surplus, unfortunately, was mischaracterized at a couple of Council meetings as being derived solely from [Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB)] claims,” Chief Gilbert explained. “In the case of our almost half-a-million-dollar surplus for 2019, $240,000 of that came from WSIB claims.”

The rest of the PPS 2019 budget surplus are from efficiencies that were found within the organization, and costs not spent because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

Around the topic of defunding the police, Chief Gilbert said that many people call on the police not only for the services they provide under the Ontario Police Services Act, but also for other services.

“For instance, today we’ve got a call about a porcupine around somebody’s house or the entrance to their house, and they’re calling on the police to capture it,” he said, which made Connors laugh. He also noted the recent black bear sightings both downtown and in the south end. At the time of writing, the PPS has also been involved with a call about a loose cow this year.

“There’s not a whole lot of other agencies that we can rely on to deal with some of the issues that we have in the community.”

Like Inspector John Lyons mentioned in the first “Tough Conversation,” police are granted exclusive authority to apprehend an individual under the Ontario Mental Health Act, added Chief Gilbert.

“When people are talking about [defunding], I’m all in favour of police not going to certain [calls], but the problem is there’s nobody else to deal with these things right now. The legislative authority has to be there, and it doesn’t exist [apart from the police],” he said.

“Doesn’t that give credence to the argument that the funding that is now being given to the police should be diverted to other services who are more able to deal with those things, like the Animal Control?” Connors asked, noting that the health organizations in Peterborough receive a small percentage of the City budget relative to the PPS.

Chief Gilbert clarified that both the City and the County fund health services in Peterborough, while the PPS is funded by the City alone, and reiterated that legislative changes need to be made before budgets can be cut.

“Often what it boils down to is, we’re the only agency that’s working past 5 o’clock,” he said. He also explained that it is difficult to find funding for officers to do MCIT calls external to the existing budget, as well as funding for mental health workers and nurses to work with the PPS.

Turning the conversation back to Chief Gilbert, Connors asked, “What has changed in the two years since you’ve been here? What specifically has changed under your leadership?”

From his perspective, he said, “We’ve tried to make sure that members are held accountable, and that they’re recognized for the good work that we do.”

Chief Gilbert also mentioned that he was impressed with the community-oriented criterion for promotions within the PPS and for inter-service transfers.

Regarding community partnerships, pre-existing partnerships have continued under his leadership with help from Community Engagement and Outreach Coordinator Peter Williams.

“We were actually looking at hiring a second person into that role with Peter, so that there’d at least be two Community Engagement Coordinators in the Service, because there’s an awful lot of different community groups that need our time, that need our ear, and Peter’s kind of horribly overworked in that role,” he said.

Chief Gilbert stated that Williams is leaving PPS in October.

“I’ve tried to leverage some of the partnerships we’ve had with Trent and Fleming,” he continued, mentioning the 2019 diversity study from Trent and the committee that Connors and Sergeant Ted Branch sit on regarding “inclusiveness education for Peterborough Police.”

[caption id="attachment_19177" align="aligncenter" width="409"]

Chief Gilbert with members of the Peterborough Police Auxiliary Service. Photo courtesy of Gilbert's twitter.

The PPS also recently hired an “audit and quality control person” to look at the internal policies and procedures and their compliance with legislation, whether systemic racism and biases are on the books, and processes for hiring, promoting, and transferring staff, said Chief Gilbert.

“So besides from Peter, who are you getting advice from on these types of matters that are beyond the scope of the general policing stuff?” Connors asked. She was especially curious to know about sworn officers’ involvement with community outreach. “Peter’s great, don’t get me wrong; I rely on him a lot and I’m sure you do too, but [he’s] one voice.”

“You name it, we have members that are working with those groups that are either on their Board of Directors or assigned as liaison,” Chief Gilbert said, noting Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre (KSAC), Kawartha-Haliburton Children’s Aid Society, and Edmison House as examples.

“It’s also important to hear that we may not have done something right,” he continued. “We can look at that, take it back and find, ‘Is it a discipline issue? Is it a training issue?’ and if it is a training issue, how do we make sure that we roll that into all of our members so they know that this is an example of what bad customer service is; this is what good customer service is.”

“Especially when we look at the stats from the Trent research that shows that the police force is 96 percent white, is there a change in the thought process around what is a priority in the city of Peterborough as it relates to systemic racism, that probably does exist in Peterborough Police, just like every other institution?” Connors asked, noting that the CRRC had not had a close relationship to the PPS until “recent events.”

“Well I would agree that systemic racism exists everywhere, and it’s important to understand what systemic racism is,” Chief Gilbert said, mentioning that the Honorary Chief of the PPS, Dr. Hugh C. Russell, has been providing guidance. He also noted that the census data does not account for international students, or 2SLGBTQIA+ people.

“We’re looking at trying to hire and promote within our organization so that we’re very reflective of the community that we serve,” he said. “That being said, we also want to make sure that we’re hiring the best possible people for the organization.”

Chief Gilbert said that police recruiting is impacted by controversies. Instances of police brutality against people of colour, even in the United States, cause a “chilling effect” towards the profession in Ontario. Fewer people apply to avoid the negative connotations associated with the job, which makes the application pool for hiring limited.

“Now with George Floyd and what’s gone on in the States, our recruiting is going to take a big hit,” he said.

“Doesn’t that speak to how people are being recruited in general?” asked Connors, touching on previous conversations about recruiting. “If people genuinely want to help in the community, and you have a real concern around issues of folks who have historically been oppressed and marginalized, then why not have that be a part of the competencies for acquisition, for people to bring onto police services? Because right now I don’t think it’s even thought about, in terms of the recruitment process.”

Chief Gilbert said that the PPS is looking at life experiences and competencies in its recruiting, and does background checks to ensure that no racists are hired. He also described “a very in-depth interview” with a psychologist towards the end of the hiring process.

“Surprisingly we do get reports back from the psychologist saying, ‘No, don’t hire this person,’ and they will outline a litany of things that they’ve identified through the psychological testing, but also that interview,” he said. For instance, a candidate may be flagged for poor crisis management, or propensity to violence or to anger.

“We advertised in a variety of different publications trying to attract diverse candidates to policing in Toronto, and the one group we never had to advertise for was white males,” he continued.

“Jeez, I wonder why,” said Connors with a small laugh. “To me, as an Indigenous woman, that’s a scary thing.”

“I had a number of Indigenous officers working for me in Toronto. I was blessed in Toronto in that any Division that I walked into was very culturally diverse and was very reflective of the community that we were policing,” Chief Gilbert replied.

“Wouldn’t something like that be even more appropriate in a community like Peterborough that’s surrounded by First Nations communities?” she asked.

The PPS has been working with Curve Lake and Hiawatha, he said.

“Shortly after I was here, we had an officer candidate for Curve Lake that was job shadowing with us for a few weeks to get an idea of a different perspective on policing,” he said.

“We have worked with New Canadians Centre and Fleming College to try and increase diverse hires including gender diversity,” Community Engagement and Outreach Coordinator Williams (@peterwilms_ptbo) wrote into the livestream chat.

“As I talked about earlier, about who advises the police, I’d really take that a step further, and say: who gives the police chief advice?” Connors asked.

“I’m all about diversity of perspectives, so I think it’s really important that you’re hearing different perspectives from folks who are comfortable enough to actually have those conversations with you, and say, ‘Look, this isn’t right,’” she continued. “I am saying to you, directly, that the racism piece needs to be a priority, throughout policing. From the recruitment stage right through to training, right through to looking at statistics, all of that stuff, and up to this point it hasn’t been.”

“I like to think that I have a good dialogue with all my command staff here,” Chief Gilbert said, noting that he talks to a variety of people both in Peterborough and Toronto about different topics and opinions.

He said that this was different from his experiences in policing in the 1980s: “They would tell us that policing is a semi-military organization. You didn’t have the ability to offer your opinion on anything. Your opinion wasn’t valued; if you offered it, you were castigated, you were segregated.”

Coming into the last 10 minutes of the hour-long conversation, Connors broached the topic of the PPS’ recent acquisition of a light armoured vehicle (LAV).

“When this was rolling down the pipe, who was it that was saying, ‘Okay, this is good, this is a great idea’?” she asked. “But at a time when Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, having an armoured vehicle in Peterborough then show up… [did no one think] ‘this is a bad idea’?”

“What do people think we’re going to do with it?” asked Chief Gilbert. When Connors said that this was “probably not the right time” for the LAV, he responded, “Well when is the right time?”

The LAV acquisition was underway in January, and the paperwork was completed in time for it to be delivered in Peterborough in May, he said. George Floyd was killed on May 25.

When asked if the anonymous donor could have or should have kept the LAV, if only for a little while, Chief Gilbert said, “We didn’t have a choice.”

“I could have left it parked in Oshawa and hidden it, and then what would be the optics if somebody sees it and says, ‘The Peterborough Police have a light armoured vehicle that they’re hiding’?”

“I’m not saying that it should have been hidden,” said Connors. “I’m saying come out in front of it, and say, ‘You know what? This has been in the works for a while, but given the situation that we’re in now, we need to look at this. We need to think about this.’ Because there is an impact, particularly on the racialized community and in particular the Black Lives Matter movement, where this is seen as something entirely different. Regardless of how long it’s been in the works, there’s still an impact.”

“Well, what’s next? What’s next in policing that somebody doesn’t find offensive?” Chief Gilbert replied, noting that Torontonians took issue with changes to the TPS cruiser vehicle design.

As the hour wrapped up, Chief Gilbert said he would be open to doing “Tough Conversations” again.

“I do hope that from this conversation one of things that you take away is that anti-racism, anti-oppression needs to be more of a priority throughout the police,” Connors said.

“It is a priority for us,” Chief Gilbert replied, to which Connors frowned. “It is, but again, it’s a matter of perspective. How much is too much, and when is enough enough? It’s never going to be enough, and that’s the way that we build it into our hiring process and our training.”

“Tough Conversations” air live on Mondays at 12 p.m. EST on the CRRC Instagram page @racerelationsptbo.

Arthur News School of Fish
Arthur News School of Fish

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