From a labour dispute, Black Lives Matter rallies, to a pandemic to a drug overdose epidemic, Regina Police Service's chief says 2020 was a big year.
The COVID-19 pandemic added a layer of complexity to police officers' lives, Evan Bray said in a year-end interview with CBC News.
Bray noted a handful of staff within the police service had to isolate after positive COVID-19 tests, but like other organizations, every effort was made to obtain personal protective equipment and protect employees.
"Working from home is not an option. The work that we do is literally out in the community every day," he said. "If we have civilian staff who are working here that can work from home, they have transitioned to that."
When asked about enforcement of public health orders tied to COVID-19, Bray made comparisons with how the police service handled the legalization of cannabis in 2018.
From the start, he says, a lot of efforts were put into educating the public about the health orders and what the rules were. When it comes to more recent non-compliance, Bray says, the focus becomes enforcement.
Bray says the recent trend in police handing out tickets for non-compliance will continue into the new year as the COVID-19 curve is trending the wrong way in Saskatchewan.
On vaccinations, Bray says he's not going to push the province to get police officers to the front of the line, putting his trust instead in the government's rollout strategy. In the meantime, he says, the police service will continue to abide by the precautions it's put in place.
Labour dispute a point of pride
On the labour dispute between the Co-op refinery complex and members of Unifor, Bray says he was proud of the work the police service did.
"I say that knowing that the work that we did each and every day had some people in our city frustrated," Bray said.
"Sometimes it was those that were supporting Co-op and that side of things, and others it was the people that were supporting Unifor and the workers and the union side."
Bray said the police's goal is to remain neutral and focus on public safety and at times in the dispute both of those aspects of policing could mean a "variety of things," through the dispute.
On Regina's overdose epidemic
While proud of the police service's accomplishments on the labour dispute front, Bray is honest about the city's battle with rising overdose numbers.
"It's not going well," Bray said, adding the city had surpassed 1,000 total reported overdoses in 2020.
"That's reported overdoses, so that doesn't include those that go unreported to police or emergency services. So we know sadly that number is probably double that."
Bray says well over 100 people in Regina died from overdoses this year.
He attributes the rising numbers to a list of items, but says the type of drug that's being done and the purity of the drugs available in Regina are likely factors.
For years, Bray says, crystal meth was the problem. But he says with a drop in supply drug cocktails are being sold. Fentanyl is also of particular concern on the drug front in Regina.
"I've heard some people speculate that it could be some money that was handed out as a result of the pandemic," the chief said. "I don't know that I can point to that specifically and say that's what it is," Bray said of the overdose numbers.
Defund discussions continue
Discussions about defunding the police, sparked around the world in the spring and summer, are continuing in different ways in every community, Bray says.
A big challenge in the discussion, he adds, is defining what defunding means.
Bray says there have been two major discussion points in defunding the police: better police oversight and supporting groups or organizations that are better trained or equipped than police officers to deal with complex situations.
On increasing police oversight, he says independent, civilian-led oversight is something he and other police officers in the city support, as it will do nothing but build trust and support for the force.
On supporting other organizations better trained than police in complicated situations, Bray says those have been productive discussions in which he was more than happy to participate.
"We're in a good position to show our community what the calls for service we're going on are and which ones could potentially be handled by others," he said.
"The challenge is this: When we receive that 911 call, people are not on the other end of the line saying 'we have someone with an addiction problem, can you come give us a hand.' They're saying 'so-and-so has a knife and they've just tried to stab my sister.'"
In those situations, Bray says, police often don't learn the complexities of the situation — such as someone experiencing a drug-induced psychosis or needing mental health-related help — until after things have calmed down.
The discussions about supporting organizations needs to include police, he says, because they will always be needed to defuse tense situations.
But once police have calmed things down, he says, the conversation should shift to how police can better collaborate with community partners that are in a better position to help and support the people who need it, so they don't have to interact with police again.