UPDATE: Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly resigned from his position on Feb. 15, 2022.
Before becoming Ottawa’s police chief, Peter Sloly had a reputation as a progressive reformer critical of a “reactive enforcement model” in policing, but his hands-off approach to the prolonged and chaotic demonstrations in the country’s capital has raised questions about his handling of the crisis.
He spoke publicly about his views on policing when he was deputy chief in Toronto in 2016, saying the force’s model was a poor use of resources that left officers running around the city in an unfocused way. Chief Sloly spent much of his career trying to improve the way officers interacted with the community.
Multiple border crossings remain closed as convoy protests against COVID-19 measures continue
The chief, who took the helm of Ottawa’s police force in 2019, is facing anger from residents over his management of the demonstrations that have taken over the city’s downtown core. He has been plagued by criticism about how thousands of protesters and hundreds of trucks were able to take over Parliament Hill and the surrounding area, harassing residents, blaring deafening air horns and polluting the air with headache-inducing diesel fumes.
The police’s seemingly slow approach, captured in images of protesters carrying jerry cans past officers, has infuriated residents.
Chief Sloly has stood by his response to the crisis, saying police could not have acted more aggressively until they had more resources to respond. Asked earlier this week if he would resign, he said he has no plans to do so.
“I came here to do a job and I’m going to get that job done all the way through,” he told Ottawa’s Newstalk 580 CFRA this past week.
Policing experts say that while Chief Sloly is known for his progressive style, his concerns about the lack of resources were legitimate given the unprecedented situation facing Ottawa.
“From a policing perspective, I don’t think it matters what Chief Sloly did before or what his perspective is with respect to policing,” said Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association. “You have to make decisions with respect to how you’re going to manage what started out as a protest and devolved into something else.”
Mr. Stamatakis said he hopes that an eventual review examining the response to the convoy will look at the role of all levels of government and not focus on Chief Sloly. He said the response from the federal political level has not helped the chief manage the situation. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remained quiet in the early days of the protest while some Conservative MPs engaged with the convoy.
Scot Wortley, a University of Toronto criminology professor, said he commiserates with Chief Sloly because Canada has never seen these kinds of widespread demonstrations before. Protests have expanded beyond Ottawa, with demonstrators taking to the streets in other major cities and at Canada-U.S. border crossings. “Perhaps the closest thing we’ve had would be the uprising on January 6th  in the U.S. So to say, ‘Oh, he should have followed some kind of rule book or some kind of strategic plan,’ I think that’s unrealistic because nobody has ever really faced this,” Prof. Wortley said.
The protests began last month when the convoy opposing vaccine mandates descended on downtown Ottawa, causing gridlock and chaos in the core.
The protests quickly evolved into a broader demonstration against pandemic restrictions and Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal government.
Earlier this week, Chief Sloly said that the force would turn up the heat as police starting cracking down on anyone bringing material aid, such as fuel, to protesters. Police dismantled a protest camp near the Rideau Canal downtown and a fuel operation on Coventry Road, east of the core, but some trucks and demonstrators continue to occupy downtown streets and the staging area on Coventry.
Some RCMP and OPP officers have been sent to Ottawa to support local police but the city is pushing for more.
On Monday, Day 11 of the protests, Mayor Jim Watson asked the federal and provincial governments to send an additional 1,800 police officers to combat what he described as widespread lawlessness. The mayor met with Mr. Trudeau, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino earlier this week to discuss the request.
Chief Sloly said Thursday that his service is working with the provincial and federal governments, as well as police partners, on the request for additional officers, and that more resources will mean faster results.
Catherine McKenney, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun they, is an Ottawa city councillor for a ward heavily affected by the demonstrations. They said they started to have concerns about the chief’s decisions when an “extremist element” emerged after the first weekend of protests.
“It was at that point that I had real concerns that police and the chief were not paying attention to the residents of this city,” said Catherine McKenney, who is running for mayor later this year.
They said they will push for a review of Chief Sloly’s handling of the protests but wouldn’t go as far as calling for his resignation.
The Globe and Mail spoke to sources with knowledge of policing in Canada who said Chief Sloly was not experienced enough to lead the response to convoy demonstrations, adding that he spent much of his career in administrative roles as opposed to operational settings. The Globe is not identifying the sources because they did not want to speak publicly on the issue.
Pat Flanagan, who worked as an executive officer to Chief Sloly before retiring last year, said the crisis has been “mismanaged,” lacking the proper command structure and lines of communication that are crucial to the success of a police operation. Mr. Flanagan has been critical of his former boss on Twitter, saying his words should be backed up by actions.
The Ottawa Police Service said Chief Sloly was not available for an interview.
Born in Jamaica, he moved to Canada at the age of 10. He started his policing career in his early 20s, joining the Toronto force in 1988 after playing professional soccer. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and has a master’s in business administration. He also served two peacekeeping tours with the United Nations in Kosovo.
Chief Sloly rose through the ranks in Toronto and was named deputy chief at just 43. From racial profiling to the violent G20 protests, he was involved in some of the biggest issues facing policing in Toronto. He was considered a front-runner to replace then-Toronto police chief Bill Blair in 2015, but was ultimately not selected. Mark Saunders, who was seen as more of a cops’ cop, was chosen instead.
In January, 2016, deputy chief Sloly gave a speech criticizing the force’s “reactive enforcement model,” its growing budget and the loss of public trust. The controversial address highlighted his views on policing, said Prof. Wortley. “He’s known in both academic and policing circles as a relatively progressive individual who may not be quick to resort to more draconian heavy-handed measures.”
The speech led to formal complaints from the Toronto Police Association (TPA), the union representing officers, and the deputy chief resigned less than a month later. While many said his departure was a loss for Toronto police, applauding his push to reform policing, critics said his presence was a distraction and dismissed his remarks as sour grapes over not getting the top job.
Prof. Wortley said jealousy, especially from within the TPA, was directed at Chief Sloly, who is Black. “Many of his colleagues unfairly thought that he was being promoted and given positions of power that he did not deserve because of his race,” he said. “Sloly has his enemies who are waiting for him to fail and will jump on the wagon right now and use this Ottawa occupation as a means of discrediting him and criticizing him.”
A couple of months after he left the force, Deloitte hired him as a security consultant.
In October, 2019, he took over at the Ottawa Police Service, which has since faced allegations of racism, sexual harassment and corruption under his leadership.
In 2020, a video appeared online of an Ottawa police officer pulling over a Black man and falsely claiming that the man’s licence-plate sticker was expired. After the incident, Chief Sloly ordered every member of the force to take part in sessions on conscious and unconscious bias, anti-Black racism and racial profiling. The service apologized to the driver.
The Ottawa police also faced accusations of corruption after three officers were arrested in 2020 and eventually charged for acting alongside certain tow-truck operators and providing information about car-crash locations for a fee. The arrests came on the heels of an investigation by The Globe, which revealed that a tow-truck ‘turf war’ had been raging across the Greater Toronto Area.
Chief Sloly has had his own legal trouble as well. Last year, he launched a lawsuit against an Ottawa magazine publisher and a Carleton University criminology professor for allegedly defaming him in an article. The piece accused the chief of poorly handling alleged misogyny in the Ottawa Police Service, specifically criticizing his response to sexual-harassment allegations against suspended deputy police chief Uday Jaswal.
Ewart Walters, a Jamaican-Canadian who has worked as a community consultant with the Ottawa police, has known Chief Sloly since his days as a Toronto officer. He said the chief’s perceived aversion to the use of force against Ottawa protesters now is likely informed by his experience in Toronto during the G20 protests in 2010. “Peter Sloly’s approach to policing is different. If he was using the old methods, he would have charged in and got rid of these truckers,” Mr. Walters said. “It is only now that, with the incursion of the truckers, that we have seen an attempt to sort of categorize his approach to it as a weakness of some sort.”
Mr. Walters said Chief Sloly is seen as an “outsider” in the Ottawa Police Service and some members have urged him to go back to Toronto. Mr. Walters dismissed critical comments about the chief as “jealousy” and “voices blowing the wind.”
Ottawa’s mayor has stood by the chief and his officers, saying they are doing everything in their power to bring the demonstrations to a peaceful and safe end.
“It’s very easy to criticize their work from the comfort of our offices, or living rooms or behind our computers, when we really don’t know how difficult it is for them every day to respond to so many dangerous circumstances in bitter, miserable cold weather,” said Mr. Watson during an emergency city-council meeting earlier this week.
Diane Deans, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board and a city councillor who is also running for mayor, would not clearly say if she has confidence in the chief. Speaking to CBC news on Monday, she said a postmortem will eventually look at how the demonstrations were handled, but it is not appropriate to point fingers in the middle of a crisis.
Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, said the police services board is ultimately responsible for the situation facing the police executive.
Last year, the Ottawa Police Service’s budget was increased by 2 per cent after Chief Sloly sought a boost of 2.86 per cent, resulting in a $2.65-million reduction in the original request.
“The police services board is ultimately who is accountable for what is occurring today. They have placed the police executive in this position. They are aware of how Ottawa police were staffed prior to this,” said Mr. Skof.
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