Amid the controversy surrounding the force and its chief, Halifax police took part in a mostly joyous church service in Halifax Sunday marking a day to end racial discrimination.
Halifax Regional Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais, along with some of his officers and RCMP officers make up the church choir at the annual service, ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which is Tuesday.
“This is always an interesting service depending on what is happening at the time in the community, and we know lots of things are happening,” Rev. Dr. Rhonda Britton said during her sermon Sunday.
“We just had a community meeting at the library the other night … and Chief was on the hot seat.”
The service at the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church came just days after a public meeting between Blais and the community up the street in which he was challenged on the practice of street checks, a topic never explicitly mentioned on Sunday.
According to police, street checks are “when an officer either observes somebody or something going on or has an interaction or conversation with someone,” and then creates a record of that interaction, which is filed in a police database. Data released in January by Halifax Regional Police and Halifax RCMP show that black people are more than three times more likely than white people to be street checked.
At the meeting Thursday night, the Canadian Press reported some in the crowd called on Blais to resign as he turned down suggestions to change the practice.
On Sunday, Britton defended Blais, and called on her parishioners not to paint all police officers with the same brush.
“I know that there are members of community who are disenchanted with police even though we think that they’re doing a good job, some of us,” she said.
“I have every confidence in saying that (Blais) is a man of integrity who seeks to do his best.”
Blais reaffirmed his force’s commitment to the elimination of racial discrimination, after which a parishioner called out, “That’s a lie.”
The Chief appeared flustered for a few moments before getting back to his remarks, and the packed church cheered for him as he finished a 25-minute speech about racism.
He blamed an “information overload” from around the world for eroding trust in police here at home.
“We’ve seen how information from all parts of the globe skews our local perceptions. We look at events that occur elsewhere or in the past, and think they happened yesterday, right next door,” he said.
“There’s a greater scepticism and cynicism of government agencies and especially policing today than ever before, which in some ways is exacerbated by social media.”