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MLAs press NWT's top cop on RCMP issues


Chief Superintendent Jamie Zettler, commanding officer of the NWT RCMP, faced questions on the shortcomings of police services from politicians Jan. 26. 

Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, took aim at the RCMP, saying that it has a "trust deficit" in the North and asked if G Division has a higher proportion of rookie officers sent to remote locations and officers with disciplinary histories, such as an officer in Fort Good Hope who in 2015 pleaded guilty to sexual assault. 

"I'll dispute that comment," Zettler said. "Our employees that come into the territory, we might get eight to 11 cadets come in over 12 months. None of them go to our small communities. I would suggest that our level of service as an organization has decreased but mainly because across the country we've seen an increased number of resources brought in. Our members' service might be getting younger in service years but not because there's more rookies coming in."

"As for disciplinary area – we don't have a higher percentage of people with discipline (issues). I would say we have lower levels actually," Zettler said. 

RCMP 'dropped the ball' on Fort Good Hope posting

However, the commanding officer admitted that he "dropped the ball" with regards to the officer sent to Fort Good Hope.

"(After that) we've put in further scrutiny but we get great members who come here. They're well trained, they do a great job," he said. 

Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, took aim at the RCMP Jan. 26, saying that it has a "trust deficit" in the North. GNWT image

Switching gears, Johnson later commented that no-alcohol orders on suspects released from custody are setting up people to fail if they already struggle with substance abuse issues. 

"Over-policing practices criminalizes vulnerable populations. The vast majority of our release conditions are too onerous. We've seen some changes in bail conditions but it hasn't made it to the ground of policing. How are we changing RCMP release conditions? They take up too much court time and we've gotten out of control with laying too many breach charges."

Kim Schofield, assistant deputy minister and solicitor general in the Department of Justice responded to Johnson's concerns by saying that in the pandemic the practice has shifted and there have been fewer people in custody and remand. 

People released with conditions are being asked to refrain from drinking in public rather than refrain completely "(because with) people who have chronic substance issues it's hard for them to live up to those conditions," Schofield said. 

Public safety should be considered: Zettler

Zettler said he agreed with Johnson, adding that release conditions should take public safety into consideration. 

"That includes potential victims of offenses and each case should be looked at on its own merits to make sure the conditions of release are related to the offense. I think that the message that has gone forward is the opportunity to release offenders who can support it. That has created a reduction in our accused in Yellowknife," he said. 

Thebacha MLA Frieda Martselos, who joined the meeting by phone, asked how the NWT RCMP are addressing systemic racism in the force. 

Zettler said the RCMP are developing a clearer picture of the barriers in policing that lead to systemic racism by working with Indigenous partners and leaders on cultural understanding. 

"Our recruitment process goes through continual review," he said. "Certainly systemic racism has been flagged. We have to take a look at arresting process and address barriers that have impacted Indigenous citizens. We need to work with partners to see if our policies are working."

'Major gap' in RCMP communication

Martselos also said there is a "major gap" in communication between her home community of Fort Smith and the RCMP. 

"I agree with you that communications is something that no one will ever find the right level on," Zettler said. "The more we communicate, the higher the expectation is. It's something we'll always have to strive to work on. Communication gaps will probably always exist. We have to keep working on it.

"If anything goes off the rails it's because there wasn't enough communication. Even when we think we're communicating enough we realize it wasn't enough or it was misinterpreted. I'm committed to continuing working on communications."

Jackson Lafferty, MLA for Monfwi, pointed out that 12 communities in the NWT don't have police detachments, including the community of Gameti in his constituency that has been advocating for an RCMP detachment. 

"The RCMP can provide more manpower but no detachment. Gameti wants a detachment. Could a detachment be set up in partnership? We should have detachments in all communities but we don't. Nunavut has detachments in all communities," Lafferty said.  

"We have to keep in mind safety over money. How many lives do we have to go through before we establish any sort of facility? This will be an ongoing issue until things happen."

Talk of pricey buildings

In response, Schofield said that building detachments and infrastructure is costly but that there would be further conversations on the issue.  

Lafferty then asked which communities will be chosen under the First Nations Policing Program (FNPP) for nine police positions.  

"We've had (FNPP) positions in Behchoko, Fort Simpson, Fort Good Hope and Inuvik," Schofield said. "There was an allocation of 35 RCMP positions across Canada. We were very successful, we received five out of the 35. I thought we did well considering our small population. (But) the criteria is it they have to go places with existing FNPP positions. Based on the need and service levels, two will go to the Tlicho region, one will go to Inuvik, one will go to the Sahtu and one to the Dehcho."

Zettler also addressed the issue of body cameras on officers and said there is a commitment to move forward with the project, though it will come with costs and more research is needed on how the technology would work in the territory.