Nishan Duraiappah is the first police chief of South Asian descent in Ontario’s history, and he just marked his first year on the job as top cop in Peel Region.
Duraiappah is leading the force in one of Canada’s most multicultural cities, where more than 62 per cent of residents identify as visible minorities, at a time of major upheaval in the way police forces in North America are seen.
He was sworn in as top cop for Peel Regional Police on Oct. 1, 2019.
CityNews spoke to Chief Duraiappah about the growing calls to defund the police and other high profile issues that have made the news this year.
“We’re trying to get ahead of that, and part of that is my testament to say we are a good organization, we are good men and women. We will go as far as putting mechanisms in place, so we can say to the public: don’t take my word for it, we’re doing meaningful work to make sure we’re watertight.”
Watch the full interview below:
Fatal police shootings
Since taking office, Duraiappah has been at the helm during high profile fatal shootings of racialized community members.
This year alone, there have been three.
In January, Jamal Francique, 28, was shot dead while police were following his car. D’Andre Campbell, 26, was shot in his Brampton home during a mental health call in April and Mississauga resident Ejaz Choudhry, 62 was shot dead during a mental health call in June.
His family said they called a non-emergency helpline with concerns he wasn’t taking his medicine.
Chief Duraiappah agrees with the public sentiment that police should not be the only ones responding to these calls.
“Those are tragic circumstances,” the chief says. “There’s about 200 calls an hour that come into our communication system. We apprehend an average of 18 individuals a day under the mental health act and go to hundreds of mental health calls a day, which are resolved with connecting persons to services, getting them the help they need.
“The reality is the volume and demand is so great that, tragically, we do see some that don’t end up that way,” said Duraiappah.
“I think there’s almost been an awakening of a narrative we’ve been saying, that police are overused. For matters that we’re not the most appropriately ones to respond to such as addictions, homelessness, housing, food insecurity, older adult isolation, youth truancy. But we have been for the longest time, the 24/7 available go-to for that along with paramedics and firefighters.”
“We’ve got amazing people in that space we’ve done some things that have allowed us to bring crisis workers in triage calls. You know, try to get people off [the] course of risk before they get to a point of call,” he said.
“And I think what’s happened is, many people realize that legislatively, inherently, some things need to change. We are the only legislated entity that takes somebody to a hospital, which is currently allocating that funding, so perhaps, a community group could respond to these calls.”
Addressing systemic racism in the police force
Duraiappah also took the reins at a time when a CCDI audit found significant gaps in Peel police force recognizing systemic barriers at the leadership level.
The report found one-third of leaders in the police force in 2017/2018 indicated that systemic oppression didn’t exist within the force and could not make the connection that the issue is also systemic in the rest of the community.
Ninety-three per cent of leaders believed the force was committed to inclusion and diversity, but only 41 per cent of the police force respondents agreed with this statement, and no racialized officer did.
“When you tell people, for example, certain communities couldn’t afford the fee to apply to policing, because it was a barrier to even consider applying to policing (shows) how that disproportionately affects certain communities,” said Duraippah. “Then you start to unpack why there’s such a challenge to have a workforce that’s reflective of the community. You go, ‘Oh, these are barriers.'”
When the audit was released last year, Chief Duraiappah hadn’t yet been instated in his role. He says things are changing – albeit slowly. And it starts with communication from the top down.
“I am embarking on unpacking policies, audits, HR training, all those things that could have inherent barriers, which we want to get rid of. In that same audit, we also had racialized members of our organization feel that there was a disconnect between leadership management, and they themselves felt the rawness of this organization. So when you ask does everybody understand? No, it takes communication. That’s my job to do.”
When asked if he could foresee a future where police would no longer respond to mental health calls at all, the chief said an immediate reduction of resources would have serious public safety implications, but there needs to be a collaborative approach to public safety.
“Strengthening and investing in other systems, absolutely has to happen. I think the complexity where people, when you hear the word ‘defund,’ it can mean either turning the tap off or taking money away.”
He added that in Peel region there are still many other areas where the police are needed, citing the airport, road fatalities and gun and gang violence.
“Somebody here who has their house broken into sometimes has to wait a day for an officer to respond. So, there are other things that I need to be applying resources to and if we could egress out of things that have another solution, we’re proponents of that,” said Duraiappah. “The concept needs to be a collaborative thoughtful coordination of Human Services and reorienting funds from where they needed to be to the right areas.”
Chief Duraiappah will be meeting with multiple levels of regional and municipal governments this week to come up with some of those solutions.
“I’m speaking to regional council, with the CEO of the region, and we are presenting a planning framework, which is going to force the system’s leaders in hospitals, education, municipalities, and housing together to coordinate specifically on systemic racism, intimate partner violence, mental health and addictions, and we’re going to use that framework to do exactly that.”
“This is community safety and well being. This planning framework is the tangible, thoughtful way forward. And it may not be the early solution, but that’s where meaningful work needs to go and that’s where Peel Region is going to go,” said the chief.
Achievements over a fraught first year
Despite spearheading many changes – including dedicated community policing resources to address a spike in intimate partner violence – and seeing the force through one of its most challenging times, Chief Duraiappah is hesitant to classify progress as his own achievements.
“We’re all stewards of this organization for the needs of the community. My job here is to move the yardstick, but that’s materialized itself in some real significant activities. And the first is, we have gone through an unprecedented fundamental change in this organization. Not only have I arrived from outside the organization, we appointed a new senior management team, have hired 161 constables since I’ve been here, 141 civilians to fill up gaps and attrition promoted,” said Chief Duraiappah
“Sixty officers within have completely deconstructed the organization chart and rebuilt it with an emphasis on three particular things: modernized community policing, investing in our people from a wellness, a training equity, diversity inclusion and skill development, and a technology innovation roadmap.”
The biggest result of that was a new community safety program that addresses a key issue in the Peel Region: intimate partner violence, calls for which have doubled this year, spiking like never before during the pandemic.
“We have an intimate partner family violence unit of 50 dedicated officers that never existed before. Taking them away from the frontline. And this is not going to be us alone, it’s going to be with multi-sector agencies, they’re going to be at site, outside of a police facility and embedded in the community. It’s not a new concept what we’re doing, and we are looking at embedding crisis workers potentially in our 911 communication center.”