It was an ambitious plan — to reform the police force from the inside-out, to remove rot and fix a broken culture that dominated headlines.
But two years in, Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly has seen his mandate — and the job he and those who hired him sold to the public — change. The much-heralded “star recruit” whose job was to heal the wounds of the force promised change. But in the face of a global reckoning for police and a worldwide pandemic, change happened to him.
In an interview this week, Sloly said changing the police culture is his biggest challenge.
There’s rot in the organization that’s going to come to light. It’s not going to look good but have confidence that we’re actually doing that work, the heavy, difficult and necessary work of ridding the organization literally of cancer,” Sloly said. “And that’s what I’ll do until the last day that I’m in office.”
Sloly said cultural change, specifically in equity, diversity and inclusion is one of the things of which he’s proudest. “Getting the organization to be healthier” and how the service is working “in and with community.”
“From an internal standpoint, it’s the hardest to describe because this is a closed organization and the workings of our relationships with our members are usually not things that we publicly report on. But the literally thousands of conversations with thousands of members over two years have helped to start to change this organization,” he said.
That work, and his leadership style, have led to what’s been downright ugly in response. A video comparing him to Hitler began circulating on social media after he called a traffic stop by one of his officers racial profiling. He’s launched his own lawsuit against a magazine publisher and a Carleton University criminology professor for allegedly defaming him and forced a gossip magazine to publish an apology after it printed unfounded rumours about his personal life.
Sloly believes the acts are a symptom of him doing what he set out to do.
“If you’re not experiencing pushback, you’re not ruffling anything,” he said. “I don’t revel in being mischaracterized, lied about, portrayed in racist or misogynistic or any type of form other than the human being I am. I am not perfect. I’m a chief of police, but I’m not perfect. But I understand what needs to get done here and I’m committed to doing it. That’s part of the cost of doing a job of change in an organization like this.”
Sloly admits he enjoyed a “quasi honeymoon period” through the beginning of 2020. His first major move was to ask to accelerate the hiring of 100 new recruits, to get them all at once and out onto the road where they could be of service to an understaffed force. Then the pandemic hit, changing lives and the course of his plans. Gone was the hiring.
That period saw a constant chorus of criticism from allied community groups, organizing in response to the death of George Floyd and advocating for marginalized voices locally, who want police de-tasked, defunded or abolished.
“I just can’t think of another year in my entire life and my professional life in 2020 that was more impactful and more impactful on policing. But as a leader, I don’t get to choose the years of the decades in which I work, so I just have to deal with what comes,” Sloly said.
He said the structural change within the organization is underway after two years on the job. That included creating a new directorate with ethics-based mandates to improve internal culture.
The executive command: — the top three police officers — is currently made up of Sloly, a Black man, and two female acting deputy chiefs, one of whom is also Black. It’s arguably the most diverse executive the force has had, but that diversity came at the cost of scandal. One deputy chief vacancy came when the board suspended deputy chief Uday Jaswal for allegations of sexual harassment, and the other came when deputy chief Steve Bell took on a short-term civilian role when the force’s chief administrative officer was terminated for misusing police resources.
“The next two years are heavy, heavy implementation-focused,” Sloly said.
He wants to see neighbourhood resource teams — a return to community policing that he doubled down on early in his tenure — to start to reap the rewards of that investment, what he called “different outcomes.” Ones that are arguably better, or “upstream outcomes” that have the potential to impact large numbers of residents.
But in prioritizing the neighbourhood model, he collapsed the suppression branch of the guns and gangs unit. When the city’s largest school board moved to ban cops from their schools, the force made those former school resource officers into neighbourhood cops with a youth focus.
Sloly cautions advocates that he isn’t giving lip service, but generational change is required. He wants to see police “partners play a heavier load” and have cops be “a support entity at that table, not the lead entity.” Those are good intentions, but it will be a challenge to make the math add up for a service that spends more than 80 per cent of its budget on salaries and compensation as it is.
Police themselves say part of the reason the force didn’t implement a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy is because there is a fear of losing people able to work on the frontline.
Officers spoke of non-emergency calls languishing in the queue for hours. A man told the police board this week how it took three hours for a police officer to respond to his daughter’s collision, and the officer told her that’s because police are underfunded.
Sloly said next year’s draft budget “will be significantly informed by that massive consultation” approved by the police board this summer.