Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

How city policing has changed

Men behind badges the biggest difference since AJI tabled

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I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was.

Surprised by a colleague working on a feature in last Saturday's paper when, in the course of doing her research, Mary Agnes Welch mentioned it had been 25 years since the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry was created.

And what has changed?

That answer didn't surprise me.

Not much, was the consensus. Certainly not enough for aboriginal people who are being incarcerated at an even higher and disproportionate rate.

But if any agency, or any culture, has at least tried, the Winnipeg Police Service has. Jamaican-born Devon Clunis represents the face of that change in more ways than being the city's first member of a minority to lead the police service.

Yet, in some respects, one of his officers, Staff Sgt. Bob Chrismas, represents the new face of change in the Winnipeg Police Service, even if his white, middle-aged face looks like the old face that still dominates the rank-and-file numbers.

By "new" face, I mean highly educated, empathic and progressive to the point of being one of the chief's front-line commanders in his mission to address the root causes of crime. Progressive to the point, in fact, that Chrismas has written a book he launched Wednesday evening; Canadian Policing in the 21 Century. Despite its title, the book includes the latter decades of the 20th century when Chrismas went from working his way through university as a downtown barroom bouncer, to a sheriff's officer transporting young offenders from northern reserves, to a councillor working with federal inmates through the Native Clan Organization.

And finally, out of all of that and more, to a police recruit.

In fact, in 1989, Bob Chrismas graduated from the first recruit class after the creation of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry by the electioneering NDP, which subsequently forced the police force to change. How much?

Chrismas indirectly suggests how much in the book. And how much policing in the Internet age has changed, yet essentially remained the same.

In the book, he writes of his experiences as a police officer, yet the story that made the biggest impact on me was one from his time as a sheriff's officer, escorting young offenders from the reserve to Winnipeg. Chrismas offers the example of a 16-year-old boy who had been involved in a gunfight with other boys on the reserve. On the way to the city, the boy told Chrismas his father was an inmate at Stony Mountain Penitentiary, where sentences are two years and up. The boy's uncle, meanwhile, was incarcerated at Headingley, where prisoners serve less time. The boy confided in the caring sheriff's officer his hope of getting a longer sentence.

So he could be with his father.

"What," Chrismas writes, "can you say to a child who is forced to live in a system that offers such limited prospects?"

And that's why Chrismas called these kids "victims" when we spoke recently.

Yet Bob Chrismas's prospects weren't always hopeful as a kid, either.

At 15, he dropped out of school.

But at 19, Chrismas told me, he experienced something that changed the course of his life while doing manual labour at the Four Roses Flour plant.

"I witnessed a 50-year-old man talking to the shop steward and he had a tear in his eye."

The man's job was maintaining machinery, but a younger manager had ordered him to lift and empty a 150-pound sack of flour. And he couldn't because he had a bad back.

"And right then and there that was an epiphany. I thought, 'I've got to go back to school.' " Today, he has a master's in public administration, and he's in the midst of acquiring a PhD in peace and conflict studies.

That's another aspect of policing that has changed in the last 25 years, of course. Cops are better-educated, including in recruit class. Recruits receive training in aboriginal culture and history, and what's happened since the AJI. Yet the report itself isn't required reading. Nor is the AJI second volume on the police shooting of J.J. Harper, the event that forced so much change in the police service.

Am I surprised? Sadly, no. Some things with the Winnipeg Police Service refuse to change.

Who knows, though, maybe Bob Chrismas's book will be made required reading for recruits.

It should be. But then, so should the two volumes of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 19, 2013 A2

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