Police get warm welcome, some criticism, as chief speaks about racial discrimination

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Police get warm welcome, some criticism, as chief speaks about racial discrimination

A yearly church service in Halifax meant to promote racial unity took place in a more charged atmosphere than usual, with two churchgoers walking out on the police chief as he spoke of the force's commitment to eliminating racial discrimination.

Halifax Regional Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais's address to the congregation on Sunday was part of an annual visit to Cornwallis Street Baptist Church to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The police force has been attending the service in the north end for at least two decades, with the police forming the choir for the service. 

But this year's event comes as a CBC News investigation in Halifax has found that black people are three times more likely to be stopped by police, a revelation that has caused tension between police and the black community.

'That's a lie'

Blais did not directly speak to the police checks. When he was speaking to the congregation about the police's "core values" and how the elimination of discrimination makes communities better, a man yelled out, "That's a lie." The man left shortly afterward.

The chief and other officers mostly received a warm welcome, however.  

Blais said afterward that Sunday's event was about strengthening and improving relationships between black Haligonians and police in a place that is common ground.

"It's important, and not just in the context of street checks or race relations in general, but to let people see us as being human beings," he said. 

Blais said his department is looking into the efficacy of street checks, as well as how they break down geographically. 

Blais 'can't sit on every shoulder'

The church's senior pastor, Rhonda Britton, said she wants to see more racial sensitivity training for officers. 

"What I've discussed with the chief personally is what are you going to do to educate your officers so they are not profiling," she said.

​Overall, though, she said she was encouraged.

Blais is a man of integrity who "can't sit on every shoulder," she told the congregation.

Britton said she dislikes hearing people say, "Police are this," just as much as she dislikes hearing people say, "Black people are this." 

"There are many more of us seeking to do the right thing than there are those who are seeking to do the wrong thing," she said.