As children, we see our police officers as heroes.
My 4-year-old nephew is in love with police officers. My cousin, whom he has met only once, is a police officer, and he wants to grow-up to be just like her: a police officer. (By contrast, he sees me weekly and has never once suggested he would like to don a suit and become a lawyer).
Our children’s books, our parades, and our lessons in early years of school teach children that police officers are our guardians, our friends, our trusted allies – protecting us from Danger.
The police officer George Floyd met, however, was not a friend, ally, or guardian.
That police officer was the Danger.
I have been a criminal defence lawyer for over 10 years now. When I began to practice, my relationship with police officers began to change. My responsibility to my clients is to keep law enforcement and the powers of the state in check. I work to make sure that people who come into contact with the police retain their rights. This means that my view of police officers also changed. I stopped casting officers as heroes and began to see them as people.
We know police officer people are like every kind of people: unique and fallible. We have some amazing officers who are kind, talented, devoted and truly deserving of a hero title. On the other end of the spectrum, we have officers who are violent, racist and dangerously incompetent.
The issue is not: are police officers as a group all violent, racist or dangerous?
The issue is: why are people who are violent, racist and dangerously incompetent particularly terrifying as police officers?
The answer? The job of “police officer” includes a huge amount of potential power including guns, squads, handcuffs, and authority. The duties of “police officer” place these people in contact with a lot of potentially vulnerable people who have little to no power.
In the last week, we have seen a flood of examples of police officers unleashing the full brutality of their power against the humans they are duty-bound to protect. In these examples, we see some of the most marginalized people being hurt and killed by those officers who are violent and/or racist and/or dangerously incompetent.
The images are sickening. The statistics are deafening. The reality is shaking.
None of this is new.
The Canadian Criminal Justice System is afflicted with racism. For years, we have seen report after report confirming that racialized people are more likely to be treated unfairly by officers than their white counterparts.
In Ottawa, Black drivers are stopped over 2 times as often as the dominant population. If an Ottawa Police officer believes a driver is of Middle Eastern decent, they are over 3 times more likely to be pulled over.
Anecdotally, I once had a 19-year old young Black male client with no driving record whose interaction with police began when he was pulled-over for driving 105 km/h on the 401 Highway near Brockville. I asked him, how many times had he been pulled over before this without being charged. His answer? Nine.
Unfair profiling and illegitimate stops aren’t merely inconvenient, we know. They can be downright dangerous.
In its 2018 report, the Ontario Human Rights Commission revealed that a Black man in Toronto is 20 times more likely to be shot dead by police than a white person. In November 2019, the Globe and Mail reported that more than one-third of people shot to death by the RCMP were Indigenous. Less than 5% of our population is Indigenous.
Are all racist police officers who abuse their power obviously bad people?
Some of them may be outwardly violent, racist, dangerous and well-known for being “bad apples”. Probably, some of them are people who do not realize they are racist, who would not seem dangerous or violent in any other setting. Some may be people who become particularly dangerous only after they are given the powers of a police officer.
Is this an individual officer problem? Absolutely not. It is systemic.
Let us turn to nearby Belleville where one officer publicly posted to his own Facebook page a picture of him wearing a Confederate flag shirt and commenting, “The South will rise again!” Belleville Police reported today that, when they became aware of the this public racism, they did not remove the officer from duty. Rather, they asked him to simply remove the post. He was told to keep his private racism private.
The scariest part of police violence is that dangerous, racist police officers and heroic police officers do not physically look any different. Even if there is only one racist and dangerous police officer in a community, all police interactions for racialized community members become exceptionally dangerous. All police interactions become a sort of Russian Roulette.
In the force, one officer’s racist views and practices will inevitably lead to the spread and encouragement of those views and practices amongst others within the force. What begins as individual racism, left unaddressed, bleeds into a culture of racist complacency or, really, a culture of racism.
In simplest terms: racism infects a workplace like wildfire. Racism unchecked within the police force abets racism policing the community. When racism infects community policing, we end-up with racialized citizens being criminalized, injured and killed.
We, as a society, need to both limit the power of the police and reduce the marginalization of racialized groups.
Here, in the Ottawa Valley, what can WE do about this?
Limiting the power of police means ensuring that our laws and policies put proper limits on police powers.
Reducing the marginalization of racialized groups sometimes means intervening.
If we do not act, we accept the Danger of police violence into our society.
If we do not act immediately and consistently against police violence, we have no choice but to teach our children that all police officers are potentially very dangerous. This is not the world any of us want for our children.
We must act on an individual and a societal level to ensure that our communities are safe for everyone. Only this way can our neighbours feel safe with police in their communities. Only this way can our children feel safe emulating and trusting the people we teach them are heroes.