Early disputes between Calgary mayor, police chief may not indicate wider rift: expert

It’s only been just over a month since Calgary’s new city council was sworn in, but there already appears to be some disputes forming, with the Calgary Police Service and the mayor at the centre of it.

There was lengthy debate during budget discussions last month about a request by police to get $6 million added on, which they said would focus on funding anti-racism initiatives and hiring additional staff.

That request was eventually approved, though several councillors and Mayor Jyoti Gondek voted against it.

Then this week, another issue emerged about vaccination mandates.

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When asked by reporters if city employees would have to pay for COVID-19 testing kits if they remain unvaccinated, due to a policy change that took effect on Dec. 1, ‘We’ve been held ransom’: Police decision affects vaccination policy for city employees because of a decision by the police.

“Thanks to the Calgary Police Service making a decision that they will pay for testing, we have been forced to do the same at the City of Calgary,” she said. “Because other unions have said it’s not fair, if the Calgary police are paying for testing why aren’t you, City of Calgary?”

There was then pushback from police, who said on Twitter that the mayor was incorrect and that the CPS was just sourcing kits made available to essential services by the provincial government free of charge. They also said unvaccinated members will still have to pay for the tests until the provincial supply arrives.

Applications to the province for free kits are open until March.

Nevertheless, that statement still contradicted what had been said the previous day during a Calgary Police Commission meeting.

“Our current policy does say that effective Dec. 1, the members will be responsible for the cost of the rapid test kits,” said Dep. Chief Raj Gill.

Gill said they would continue requiring unvaccinated members to take the tests and show negative results until at least the end of March. But there was no indication the police service would be accessing the free provincial kits.

‘Things will work out in time’

With these disputes taking a spotlight, it begins to raise the question of if there is a tumultuous relationship brewing between the mayor and the police service. But one expert said we shouldn’t jump to conclusions just yet.

“There may be some tension there now, but it’s certainly not of anything that I think we should be concerned about,” said Doug King, professor of Justice Studies at Mount Royal University. “Things will work out in time.”

King said there was also a historical precedent to this, pointing to a rocky start between former Mayor Naheed Nenshi and the police chief at the time, Rick Hanson.

“It was quite rocky during that election (in 2010),” King said. “The mayor-elect was quite critical of the budgets of the Calgary Police Service, and the chief — doing what he should have done — came out publicly and defended the police.”

Another factor to keep in mind is there is a stopgap between the mayor’s office and the chief’s, and that is the Calgary Police Commission.

While the civilian-led commission does include two sitting councillors — Ward 8’s Courtney Walcott and Ward 9’s Gian-Carlo Carra — they do not hold control over the other members. That said, the other members are recommended by the mayor’s office and there was significant turnover following racial justice protests in 2020, so most members were recommended by former Mayor Nenshi.

The former chair of the commission, Bonita Croft, also recently resigned and a new chair will eventually be appointed.

Developing relationships

King said while it is possible the commission has a bit of an effect on the partnership, it’s also a symptom of people jockeying for control and trying to achieve their goals early in a new council term and elected officials transitioning away from campaign mode.

“These are relationships that have to develop. They’re not just things that you walk into,” he said. “These relationships oftentimes start out butting heads, but in time they become to see the strength of one another and it becomes a working partnership as opposed to playing it out in the media.”

King said there are also going to be lots of conversations and meetings behind the scenes, where a lot of these sorts of disputes can get worked out, out of the public eye. There could also be discussions, though, that ramp up the pressure.

But even if it did reach a much more serious point, there are protections to ensure a chief cannot just be outright fired by an elected official.

“All chiefs of police are basically employed at the behest of the Calgary Police Commission. If city council or the mayor was not particularly happy with the current chief of police and wanted to move him out of the position, they would meet extraordinary resistance from the police commission,” King explained.

The chief does have a contract for the position, and regular reviews do happen once the contract comes to an end. It would again be incredibly hard to pre-empt that, which King thinks is a positive for the system.

“We don’t want to see any overt attempt by elected officials to get rid of the chief of police. That would be an American thing to do, and we don’t want that.”

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