The Winnipeg Police Service – Religious or Secular?
Former police officer Bob Russell served with the Winnipeg Police Service for 35 years, from 1976 to 2012. He served in uniform patrol divisions, the detective branch, and forensic identification section, retiring at the rank of Sergeant. Since retirement, he continues to follow current issues within the department. He is dead against the creep of evangelical Christianity into the Winnipeg police service, and he is passionate and vocal about it. Here are his thoughts about the chapel in the new police headquarters.
Recently the Winnipeg Free Press reported that the Winnipeg Police Service announced plans for a “chapel” within the new headquarters building. I submit that including a chapel is a bad idea. My thoughts on the chapel also extend to the existence of police chaplains. I speak both as a concerned private citizen and as a retired member of the service for which I retain considerable pride and loyalty.
The Winnipeg Police Service is publicly funded to enforce the law, maintain the peace, detect and apprehend offenders, and prevent crime in a multi-cultural, multi-faith city. It must serve everyone without bias or the perception of bias, including those people who do not believe. We know that not everyone, including the religiously faithful, agrees on the numerous and contradictory truth claims of the myriad of world religions, the nature of “spirituality”, or even on the actual existence of supernatural beings.
A chapel is traditionally a place of Christian worship. Here it is advertised as a “space for quiet reflection.” As you may know, quiet rooms already exist in all new police facilities, where space is made available for reflection, prayer, or just peace and quiet. Chaplaincy program coordinator Sgt. George Labossiere claims that chaplaincy promotes the “holistic health of officers regardless of their beliefs”, and sells the chapel as “more based on ensuring that our members have a place to go, can connect with people, can make sure that we don’t just ignore the fact that many people have spiritual needs that need to be addressed.” This is double-speak. What he is actually saying is that the service should promote religious or spiritual ideas even though some people don’t hold them. An excellent employee assistance program already exists, with access to professional counsellors who treat a wide range of physical, mental, and spiritual health issues.
The Police Service should not be in the business of promoting religious or spiritual notions, regardless of how many or few people believe or disbelieve them. Churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, covens, etc. currently exist in large numbers to look after the needs of those who believe. Police employees have plenty of off-duty time to visit them – frequently if desired. If religion and spirituality is the business of the police service, then chaplains should be employed full time and in far greater numbers, services and prayer should be compulsory and numerous, and there should be spiritual mediums on staff. But the police service doesn’t have full time chaplains, mandatory prayer services, or spiritualists on staff. If not, then why not?
Will the chapel be made available for fringe religions? Satanists? Scientologists? Neo-Pagans? If not, then why not? What sort of imagery and icons will the chapel contain? All? None? Or will this be an absurd attempt at being “non-denominational”, like the Calgary Police Chapel, which contains only the icon of the Archangel St. Michael, the supposed patron saint of police officers. Is it not odd that some people consider a Roman Catholic saint non-denominational? Many police vehicles in the United States now display Christian crosses. Shall the WPS do the same? If not, then why not? Will the service fly a Christian Flag? Any other religious flag? If not, then why not?
A chapel and chaplains encourage unprofessional, unwanted, and unethical proselytization. This has and still does occur. Church Parades were held in the past. Gideon New Testaments have been supplied by the WPS to new recruits, off and on for years, most recently in 2014. A leadership training course, produced and marketed by Christian evangelist John C. Maxwell, was, until recently, taught to newly promoted supervisors. This material contains blatant religiously-themed material suggesting that future leaders should be growing closer to God. It also recommends that future leaders be without personal problems – which are undefined. To many believers, non-belief in the supernatural is a personal problem. Will they be given a fair shake by a supervisor who is assessing a non-believing employee? Maxwell’s goal is clearly stated on his websites. It is to ensure that more Christian leaders are in place throughout the world. Both of these issues were addressed by HAAM, and Chief of Police Clunis assured us that bible distribution would cease, and the inappropriate course would be dropped. He followed through with his commitment on those two issues. However, the planned chapel is another insertion of a faith-based worldview in what should be secular organization.
In the last 20 years or so, WPS Awards Days have been held at Grant Memorial Baptist Church, and training sessions for employees have been held at Springs Church. Springs Church is of particular concern because employees of the WPS have been handed church membership information on entering the building. Did Springs offer their facility, complete with many volunteers, and free coffee, snacks and lunches, at a highly discounted rate? I have heard that this was the case. Even if not, Springs took full advantage of the opportunity to try to recruit WPS staff who only wished to – or were obliged to – attend a work-related seminar. That these seminars were organized by a wellness officer who was also a police chaplain makes it doubly suspicious. Police chaplains are always front and center at awards days and graduation ceremonies, offering prayers and benedictions and assuming that everyone agrees with them. Chaplains have always had a privileged place at these events, and this is unwarranted and undeserved.
Private fundamentalist Christian police organizations exist with the purpose of evangelizing other police employees, the general public, and persons in custody. The Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers – Canada, with 1,200 members across Canada, is one. I have no idea how many, if any, WPS officers are members. There are probably a few, and they have the unquestionable right to belong. However, the FCPO-Canada has produced advertising and recruitment videos which include an FCPO-Canada member in uniform, seated in what appears to be the executive boardroom of the Woodstock (Ontario) Police Service, and an officer in the uniform of the Toronto Police Service standing next to a TPS police car. The apparent intended impression is clear and convincing – that this fundamentalist private club has official recognition and the support of the police agencies involved.
In 2016, FCPO-Canada and the Canadian Bible Society have partnered to distribute evangelical books to police employees across the country. Such groups will no doubt take advantage of a religious chapel wedged in the police service. It will be used for bible studies, prayer meetings, and speakers aimed at recruiting other employees. The service will surely then be in the business of proselytization to a membership who represent all religious persuasions and no religious beliefs at all. Is this an agreeable situation? Will the service allow other faith groups or clubs to come in as guests to pitch their religion to employees? If not, why not? The potential for strife, internal and external, is obvious, high and dangerous.
Will alternate rooms be made available for those faith groups or persons who choose not to share? Some mainstream religious groups are diametrically and violently opposed to each other. All religious faiths are, at their core, convinced that all others are wrong. They are all certainly convinced that non-believers are wrong, many believe that non-believers will be eventually punished, and some would like that to happen sooner rather than later. This is why ecumenicalism and religious pluralism are like a greased pig – very difficult to grasp and more difficult to hold on to.
I have heard the argument that chapels exist in hospitals, airports, and many other institutions outside of traditional religious buildings. These arguments are irrelevant because these institutions do not have the same responsibility as a police service. People who are sick or visiting a sick person in hospital, or who are travelling and desire the facility of a religious room should have easy access to one. This is completely benign. But the police are different in very important ways. Firstly, police represent the front line of authority of the state and its institutions which govern us all. Secondly, police have the ability and duty to lawfully deprive people of their liberty. And lastly and most importantly, police have the ability and duty to lawfully use physical or deadly violence on citizens. The police service must not be seen to be favouring or privileging any group – religious or otherwise. As Sir Robert Peel stated, a civilian police must retain the trust and confidence of its citizens. Simply put, the best stance for the WPS is to be officially neutral with respect to religious belief.
I therefore propose the following changes to ensure that the Winnipeg Police Service becomes a truly secular agency. One that serves the increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-religious people of our city without any actual or perceived religious favouritism or privilege.
- The chapel should be cancelled immediately.
- No religious facilities should be installed in any police building. This does not prohibit any memorial to fallen officers consistent with the values of a completely secular service.
- No WPS facility, uniform, equipment or logos should be used by any religious organisation for any of their activities or advertisements.
- The blatant proselytization of any religious belief, while on duty and/or within a police facility or vehicle, to employees, civilians, or persons in custody, must be prohibited.
- No religious literature of any kind may be offered or supplied, while on duty or within a WPS facility or vehicle, by employees to other WPS employees or to any other persons.
- No religious literature of any kind may be offered or supplied by the WPS to any employees with the exception of approved information used in official cross-cultural training programs.
- All official WPS functions, ceremonies, graduations, etc., must be entirely secular.
- Only facilities that are not of a religious nature or purpose may be rented or used for any functions of the WPS.
- The position of Police Chaplain should be eliminated, and matters of religious faith and spirituality should be left up to the individual.
- The WPS should announce these changes and its secular commitment to the general public.
- The City of Winnipeg Act and the WPS Rules and Regulations should be amended to codify the above changes.
Nothing prevents individual employees from carrying personal copies of religious texts while working, praying in a non-disruptive manner, or forming off-duty groups of like-minded people. Accommodations have been made for changes to the police uniform for practicing Sikhs. This is reasonable, but even these types of religious accommodations have the potential for problems arising out of historic conflicts. No doubt, other challenging and controversial situations will arise that will make future accommodations more problematic. But in these cases it is individual religious rights, not organisational rights, that are considered and addressed. The Winnipeg Police Service itself has no religious rights; it has only duties and responsibilities. Its duty and responsibility regarding religious faith and spirituality is to be neutral. Its duty and responsibility to the health and wellness of its officers is already met by its current employee assistance program. The religious beliefs of employees and the public need only be individually respected. The furtherance or alteration of these beliefs are private matters which are best left to the individual. Nothing suggested here prevents the WPS from meeting with community religious or non-religious groups as part of its overall duties to serve the entire community.
Sergeant Labossiere says the WPS follows the lead of many agencies in North America. Follows? Why not lead? The Winnipeg Police Service should become the leader in establishing and maintaining a completely impartial and secular service organization.
– Bob Russell