Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Chief's learning curve

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In the old days, a hard-boiled cop might say principled behaviour and policing don't mix in a world where criminals are sometimes accused of having too many rights.

That attitude, unfortunately, has caught up with police forces today, which is why polls show respect for police officers has fallen dramatically from the days when a cop's word was as good as gold.

A poll by Ipsos Reid last year, for example, showed trust in police officers had fallen to just 57 per cent, which was higher than many other professions (journalists stood at 29 per cent), but far below what is ideal for a healthy law-enforcement system.

Ethical leadership has become one of the new mantras in management philosophy, but it is particularly important for a chief of police.

If the top cop turns a blind eye, then so will the whole organization. It's unknown precisely why Supt. Devon Clunis was selected as the city's 17th chief of police, but his reputation as a man of high principle -- he was the force's chaplain, among other things -- may have had something to do with it. There's not a lot else in his 25-year background as a police officer that would have recommended him for the chief's job.

Supt. Clunis rose from constable to chief in a remarkable, possibly unprecedented, 10 years. In that time his experience has been limited largely to patrol duties and community service. He has minimal experience in serious crime investigation, or in finance and administration. These are serious shortcomings, particularly at a time when the city is trying to control the escalating costs of policing, which represents 25 per cent of the city's budget.

For his part, Supt. Clunis says an operational review of police operations that is being conducted should provide a road map to future efficiencies.

Perhaps, but he still faces a very steep learning curve.

He will also be the last chief selected by the city because a new police board will perform that duty in the future. It's possible the city wanted someone it could direct and control, which would also explain why the decision-makers were intent on hiring from within the force, rather than going outside for the best possible candidate. This, of course, is only speculation, but the selection of the relatively inexperienced Supt. Clunis lends itself to raised eyebrows and uncomfortable questions.

On the other hand, the decision-makers may have believed his broad experience in community service, and his high personal standards, are what the force requires at this time. There have been multiple cases of alleged and confirmed police wrongdoing in recent years, which tends to fuel public mistrust, but aboriginal suspicion of police also remains very strong, despite decades of trying to reverse the trend.

The widespread perception that police can't be trusted to investigate themselves is also the reason the province is establishing a special investigation unit to perform that task.

Outgoing Chief Keith McCaskill had a reputation for wanting to be popular with the rank and file. He was not known as a disciplinarian, which will only make his replacement's job more difficult, if he decides to impose more discipline and accountability.

Every chief, however, has to deal with the unfinished work of his predecessor and put his own brand on the job.

Supt. Clunis would be wise to surround himself with capable and trustworthy people as he moves to make the force more efficient and cost effective, and also more accountable and community-minded.

His reputation as a straight shooter may alienate some vested interests, but he sounds like a man who does not abandon his principles easily.

Good luck, Mr. Clunis, in what is one of the toughest jobs in public service.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2012 A14

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