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Alethia Legall-Gabriel is a detective constable with the York Regional Police.Provided

When Jim MacSween became chief of York Regional Police in 2020, the GTA’s third-largest police service was already moving to change its workplace culture. MacSween has remained deeply engaged in accelerating that evolution.

“We were amid this big project around culture – we still are, actually – and we have substantially moved the needle in terms of reflecting the community we serve. We’ve increased diversity in members from the 20 per cent we were at when I took over, to almost 25 per cent of a police service that collectively speaks 65 languages,” says MacSween.

Policing has changed a lot – as has York Region itself, home to more than 200 ethnic groups – in the 34 years since he joined YRP as a rookie, MacSween says. “My first question as chief was, how do we move to being a people-first organization? We need to show our people we think of them before rules and process, make sure they understand that we have care, empathy and compassion for them first. So, we flattened a lot of decision-making and from that developed a new professionalism, leadership and inclusion office that reports directly to the chief’s office.

“With a people-first culture, we improved member commitment and workplace satisfaction, and our members serve the needs of the community at a much higher level.”

In the nine years since she joined YRP, detective constable Alethia Legall-Gabriel has seen its culture evolve. “I’m a Black female, and I came in a little bit skeptical, but I’ve seen us hire to reflect what we want the organization to be about,” says Legall-Gabriel. That positive change has accelerated in recent years, she adds, under Chief MacSween.

“We started ‘Project Breakthrough’ just before COVID-19. Our aim was for everyone to feel included, accepted and valued,” Legall-Gabriel says. “Our voices and recommendations led to the new inclusion office, and I think they’re doing a really good job. Slow and steady wins the race. I don’t think we’re going to see immediate major change tomorrow, but we’re going to see change.”

Greater respect for diversity and inclusion has been matched by greater concern for employee wellness, says MacSween. “Ours is one of the few police services in Canada to have two licensed clinical psychologists and four mental health clinicians on staff to provide members with rapid access to consultation services,” says MacSween. “Previously, members had to come to one central location to speak to a psychologist or a clinician. But by 2022 we’d placed a lot of those resources out in our district offices, which allowed for trust building, and we have seen a substantial uptick in accessing those services.”

The YRP’s evolving culture and its readiness to act upon its values became clear to Legall-Gabriel in the days following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. “I was having a rough time and so were a lot of people. White officers felt like they couldn’t police at all, Black officers felt like they were wearing two different uniforms, their skin and the uniform.

“And our superintendent got all the Black members together, just to ask us how we were doing, what can we do, what can they do for us, what can we all do for each other? That really stands out for me. I love it here.”

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