BY IAN PATTISON
Policing is under the gun. Never before in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere has there been so much second-guessing of police. Unfortunately, some police are making the case for their own harsh public evaluation.
The case of George Floyd, whose vicious arrest and death led to murder charges against Minneapolis police officers, has opened the floodgates of public anger over similar, longstanding behaviour in many communities.
That only a small minority of police act this way does not matter in a virtual world where multiple acts on camera lead many to believe it is standard practice.
A study in the Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science published by Northwestern University School of Law, explored the theory of a typical police personality.
Supposedly, those drawn to policing are prone to authoritarianism that increases over the course of a career. But even cases of verbal expressions of prejudice translated into acts of “obvious” prejudice in only 2 per cent of cases.
The study referenced the movement of police officers “from station house to glass house.”
“In other words, police are being watched and studied as never before. Liberals, minorities and intellectuals are clamouring for greater civilian control over the police. The public has been sensitized to police brutality and prejudice, and police administrators are desperately trying to upgrade the quality of (recruits).” This was in 1972 and little has changed.
Still, the study evidence “does not indicate the existence of a police personality, authoritarian or otherwise.”
In the end, it found, police simply share the prejudices of the community as a whole. Which is hardly surprising. But we expect police officers to be better than that. We also expect them to possess superior levels of intelligence and training with which to sort out complex and often dangerous situations in a split second.
What are the requirements to be a police officer in Ontario? A two- or three-year community college program followed by local force orientation and 12 weeks of constable training at the Ontario Police College in Aylmer. That’s it.
Policing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The study details the wide variety of types of situations police may encounter. Stories are told of police officers shot and killed while trying to settle a family dispute or write a speeding ticket.
Situations like these are increasing, compounded by complex social issues within communities that increase with government cutbacks to social programs while police departments clamour for additional funding to handle the increase in calls that result.
What additional training do police get to deal with this? According to the Canadian Career College, “The Ontario government has stated that all officers must undergo 12 hours of mental health training.” Again, that’s it.
Add to that growing disparities within communities where minorities interact with police on a regular basis. According to the study, “No one can deny the widespread and often violent hostility police (may) encounter in minority-group neighborhoods.”
The question is, what came first -- police prejudice or minority hostility? The answer at this point is, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is rooting out the bad cops (over the defences of their strong unions), returning police work to the core expectation to “serve and protect,” and leaving everything else to others in their respective fields.
That’s the basis of the movement to “defund the police,” misinterpreted by some as abolishing police departments. This would be folly. Criminals would rub their hands in glee and mayhem would quickly ensue.
Instead, defunding police is intended to restrict police spending to their responsibility for crime alone and redistribute the rest to mental health, social work, poverty and housing shortages.
The Thunder Bay Police Service is ahead of this curve and behind it at the same time. Ahead because it is already working hard on minority and social issues, behind because it is vastly short of funds for both its core work and this additional work which is increasingly thrust upon it.
Most readers will be well aware of provincial findings of “systemic racism” within the department. Do most people believe that Thunder Bay police are racist from top to bottom, from chief to rookie constables? Not likely. But examples of rough and inconsistent treatment of Indigenous people by a relative few officers over time has cast the force in a poor light.
This has diverted attention from many good works under way to improve police relations with the public.
The concept of pairing social workers with police is already being used in Thunder Bay. The Joint Mobile Crisis Response Team sees a mental health crisis worker summoned to a 911 call to assist police in dealing with a person suffering an issue. The worker tries to de-escalate the situation and may refer the individual to other care in the community, easing the burden on hospital staff and the police, according to a recent report. Chief Sylvie Hauth is enthusiastic about the program which was used more than 1,400 times last year.
Police have established an Aboriginal Liaison Unit that works to build relationships, particularly with youth. Police regularly visit classes at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School and Far North First Nations to prepare youth who will travel to Thunder Bay for school.
Thunder Bay Police launched an organizational change project called Shaping our Future in 2017. The purpose is to “re-right relations inside and outside the TPBS (particularly Indigenous groups) to respond to calls of systemic discrimination within the TBPS . . .”
Hauth has made it a priority to address the 44 particular recommendations of the 2018 systemic review.
It was troubling, then, to witness criticism levelled at Hauth for even attending the recent Black Lives Matter rally in Waverley Park, and for affirming her inclusive position that “all lives matter.”
There is a lot left to do to re-right relations between police and communities. Thunder Bay is in a unique position. It has among the highest number of drug and gang/gun incidents in Ontario, a fast-growing aboriginal community and record levels of poverty and homelessness, all of which draw heavily on scarce police resources. If anything, Thunder Bay needs to re-fund the police while insisting that senior government provides the resources necessary to relieve the underlying social issues that monopolize the police and the headlines.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.