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Jamaican is Winnipeg's top cop

It was never my goal to reach so far, I just wanted to be a good policeman, says Devon Clunis

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate editor — features thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, March 25, 2014    

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HE is the first black man, let alone Jamaican man, in the 147-year history of Canada, to head a police division in the North American country.

That kind of reality would put pressure on anybody, but not Superintendent Devon Clunis, chief of the Winnipeg Police Service. He appears calm, relaxed, level-headed, humble and without the proverbial chip on the shoulder that lofty elevations have the potential to conjure.

In a recent conversation with the Jamaica Observer, the Harmony Vale, St Ann native said when he enlisted in the police force in Winnipeg 29 years ago, there were no other black people in the service. Things have changed dramatically over the years, with the force now having representation from all races and nationalities.

The 50-year-old said that while he didn't feel pressured by his new post and its historical significance, he was seized with the weight of the responsibility it brings. He admitted that he never consciously aspired to the top job. He always knew he wanted to be a policeman, and has done nothing else his entire professional life, but his desire to be a "good police-man" and an example to young boys propelled him beyond his dreams.

Fate might have had a hand in it too, as, when he contemplated retirement in the winter of 2011, the sitting commissioner at the time announced his own retirement.

"It was never my goal to reach so far, but just to serve the community and to be a good police officer and set an example as I reach each step," said Clunis.

But he has reached this far and for that, he credits those who nurtured him on the way, primarily his mother and a string of teachers and coaches, chief among them grade six teacher "Mrs Hannah", who passed away in 2012.

"My life would not be so good if not for Mrs Hannah... It (promotion to police chief) would not have happened if it were not for her," he told the Observer. This, after telling the story of the period of transition at age 12 from warm Jamaica where he lived with his grandparents and where "everyone looked like me" to the frigid climes of Canada where "kids would call me racial slurs". His grades fell, and once he got into a fight, but wasn't punished because Mrs Hannah intervened then and told him that if he got to school an hour earlier every day, she would help him.

"By grade nine I was the top student," he said.

"I was able to be successful because key people stepped into my life at significant places. My mother was working seven days a week per year just to provide for the family; a single mom raising her children. So it was very difficult, but I had key teachers, coaches along the way who just provided that mentorship for role modelling. At a point in my life, very early like in my teenage years, I just decided that I really have an opportunity here to do something because if I was still in Jamaica I have no idea where I would be right now, whether I'd have a job, so you must do something with the opportunity that is provided.

"So, absolutely, I stayed out of trouble. My mother always preached: 'Stay out of trouble, get an education to see where life will take you' and that's what we all did. We lived in a very economically challenged part of the city, called the North End, and yes, trouble was always around me, but I don't think you have to let it capture you if you have a vision, something that you'd like to achieve. And I always said early on that I wanted to do something in my life that would set an example for the other kids who were coming behind me," Clunis told the Observer.

Those coming behind him were Audria, now a judicial justice and Judeta, now Cohn, who does community work.

"We feel incredibly blessed when we look at our family and when we look at where we're coming from and the end reuslt of a mother who worked so hard," said Clunis, who now has a family of his own -- wife Pearlene and daughters Taylene, 26, and Atira, 20.

As Winnipeg's chief of police, Clunis has his job cut out for him. The city, with a population of 730,000 and a police force of 1,464 officers and 454 surveillance members, has the unenviable reputation as the country's murder capital and its most violent community. But if the statistics for his first year in office are anything to go by, Clunis has found the answer to curbing crime in the Manitoba capital. At the end of 2013, a full year after he assumed the position, Winnipeg's crime rate had fallen by 13.4 per cent compared to what it was in 2012. On top of that, it was 24.5 per cent lower than the previous five-year average.

Though the figures are trending down, chief Clunis said it is not reason enough to rejoice because statistics only represent one side of the coin. The other, and perhaps more important side, he said, is the sense of safety felt within communities.

"It's one year in, so I'm not expecting that it's going to be magical. It's a first step, but you certainly can't argue with the stats which are saying overall crime is down by that percentage. But it will take time for people to actually feel that sense of safety. We'll continue with the continuous engagements by myself and my officers in the community [but] some people are feeling that sense of safety already. It will take time for the others who maybe have been more seriously impacted by crime to have that same sense of safety, but we understand that," said Clunis.

"At the end of 2014 I hope, at the minimum, that we'll continue to see double digits in crime reduction, but it's also important to recognise that we can't only look at the stats. We can go into the communities and measure the sense of safety that they are feeling [because] not everything is measurable just by looking at the reduction in crime. If you see growth in terms of the health of the community as a whole, if you see fewer admissions to the emergency room, for example, because your people aren't stabbing or shooting each other, those things also need to be measured," the chief continued.

His strategy is heavy with community policing and has wide involvement from civil society, academia, and the private sector.

"Everyone has to help, including the Government, business and people. Each of us has a part to play. The first thing I did was have face-to-face talks with the Government, the community members and the police officers," he emphasised.

He spoke of a "block-by-block project", which sees officers visiting the homes and schools of youth who've run afoul of the law. The intention there is to implement social services to assist their families meet thier needs in order for them not to resort to crime. The way Clunis reasons it, the project will also serve to stem the tide of intergenerational crime in his jurisdiction.

"I encourage my officers to park and go into the community and talk to people and not just go in the community when there is crime. When a community is connected you are surprised to see the difference in how they do things,"he said.

Clunis began his career with the Winnipeg Police Service in 1987, in the middle of his final year as a biology major at university. He later completed a divinity degree and has served in all major areas of the organisation including uniform patrol, traffic, plainclothes investigation, community relations, where he spent five years as a school resource officer, and the chaplaincy unit. He has also held a number of administrative positions, the most recent of which was overseeing the service's Development Support Branch. He still serves as a chaplain.

Clunis and his wife were in the island at the invitation of the Canadian High Commission last month. His itinerary included giving motivational talks to students at the University of the West Indies, Kensington Primary in Portmore, and his alma mater Watsonville Primary. He also got to see the home where he grew up, and especially relished the lush countryside and warm temperatures since when he left Canada a few days earlier, it was under several inches of snow in one of the coldest winters on record.

"Seeing the home I grow up in was just (amazing). I remember living there with my grandparents and just the sense of safety you felt driving through the community and going to the schools, and the best part was seeing the looks on the children's faces and seeing the actual classroom that I went to school and being able to give them some hope and potential for the future," he gushed.

"I love engaging with the young people, not only here, but also in Canada. That's why I went into police work -- because I want to set an example for kids... I have friends who have turned police officers because they have seen me in policing and the way I act."

Chief Clunis added: "I think I'm an inspiration and I believe I'm fortunate that I have seen the results I have. I was able to fulfil my dreams".

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