It is trite to say that context is everything, but context IS everything. Policing is a set of very complex activities applied by a group of diverse people, not all of whom are police officers, within a certain context. When I say context I mean: community, history, demographics, ethnic diversity, socio-economics, the local economy, the law, and any other particular characteristic that describes a substantial part of the community being policed. It's all about context, but that description seems a little clinical.
I started writing this blog post the day after news broke of the shooting of a black man by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I am finishing a day later while hearing news of another black man shot by police in Minnesota. While it is certainly not my intention to get into an analysis of incidents that are under review, these high profile and tragic cases should always make us think about the complex dynamics that exist within the communities that we police. Many different groups will have a role in analysing these incidents, and they will also evaluate the local context within which the incidents occurred.
In the last blog I discussed my personal decisions and influences that led to my choice of policing as a career. What I didn't mention was my childhood friend Frank. He was a child of a single mom, with one younger sister. He boarded with a family in my neighbourhood during the week while he attended primary school, and went back home with his mom and sister on the weekends; well, most weekends. Sometimes he would show up back at our house on Saturday- I was always happy about that, but he was there because something prevented him from being with his mom. I don't know what those things were for sure, but I'd bet they were bad things.
Frank and I were best friends for a few years, grades three to six maybe, but then he began to grow up at a different pace than I did, because he had to. Sometime before high school, we drifted apart. He was using drugs and alcohol; I had the privilege of being able to stay a kid, still playing with GI JOEs and watching Batman on TV. Years later, when I was in grade 11, I was at home listening to the kitchen radio when a news story came on about a seventeen year old Moncton boy who had been shot and killed while committing a back robbery in Montreal. It was Frank. He had a shotgun. There was a mug shot in the paper some days later; Frank looked the same, but sad. While the circumstances of the shooting were no doubt legally justified, the loss was tragic. I always think about Frank when I hear about these cases.
As policing officers we must embrace and understand the history of policing in our communities. Police corruption and racial profiling are part of the context of policing in Canada. The experience of young black and First Nations men in Canada is all too frequently negative; our track record for engaging these groups, and hiring to reflect the diversity of our communities has been poor. The historical role of the police in the tragedy of the residential schools, and the on-going crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women must by confronted, embraced, and understood. It is unacceptable that there are police officers in Canada now who do not know about the residential school system for Aboriginal children.
Poverty, racism, drugs and alcohol, intimate partner violence, and child abuse are also all parts of the context that shapes our communities. The Police, as an institution, and police officers as individuals must understand how these complex social dynamics shape our society, and how they scar our children. In order to be effective in building trust within communities marginalized by the social context, and to be successful in preventing crime in those communities, the police must demonstrate a commitment to empathetic community engagement; a commitment to understanding the context.
If we fail (and we have been failing all too frequently), we commit our police officers, regardless of how pure the individual officer's intentions may be, to a course that inevitably leads to tragedy.
As police officers you face situations everyday that are scary. But fear should not be induced by poverty, race or religion, or based on what someone tells you to expect from a certain group of people. Police officers must be committed to seeing citizens as people, and once that happens, and it does happen now, change can begin to happen.
We will no doubt touch on this issue again and again, but today is good day to start the conversation.
About Barry MacKnight
Barry MacKnight is the owner of MacKnight Consulting and Chief of Police (retired) of Fredericton Police Force (2005-2012). With a wealth of experience gained from close to 30 years in the Canadian policing environment, MacKnight helped develop the Bachelor of Arts in Policing program at Laurier.