I remember reading with great interest some work by Dr. David Sunahara from the Canadian Police College about the anxiety created in new police officers when their expectations of a career in policing are turned upside down by the reality of police work - when the amount of time chasing "bad guys" is limited by the time required to process and document the investigative process. This clash of perception and reality has been, in fact, the reality for many officers. These officers have not been prepared for this reality adequately, even though they have spent months in some type of police training program.
This should not, of course, be a surprise to us when we think about the many years of indoctrination young people undergo at the hands of the entertainment media. We've all watched the TV takedown of a criminal, then the cut to the smooth hand-off of the offender to a uniform cop in a non-speaking role, and 8 minutes later the arresting officer is sipping bourbon seated on a bar stool and taking a long, deep haul off of a cigarette. Surely everyone understands it doesn't work like that...right?
Bridging the Gap Between Policing Perception and Reality
If this harsh clash of expectations and reality can mark the beginning of a slide into disappointment and alienation for officers, we must find a way to intervene. I have been convinced for many years that building a simple but robust understanding in all police officers of the environment, or context, within which policing occurs is where the answer lies. It's a matter of education rather than training. That is to say, building an understanding of the societal context is not done by training in a particular set of skills within the typical range of functional or technical competencies, but rather by educating officers about why society is the way that it is. But how do we do that?
Preparing People to Work in Policing Through an Understanding of Context
Well, to start with, we can reform the process by which we prepare people to work in policing. In fact, that has begun in Canada with programming at universities designed for those working in or hoping to work in, policing. The Online BA in Policing program at Wilfrid Laurier University is a perfect example. With courses designed to address many areas where the greatest challenges occur, we can provide officers the ability to understand why policing is so complex, why policing is so important, and why society must always subject the institutions of policing to close and continuous scrutiny. With courses like Ethics, Corruption, and Police Accountability and Indigenous Communities and Policing officers will have an opportunity to understand the complex history of their profession, as well as the unique needs of Indigenous Canadians.
Gaining Understanding of How to Police in Different Communities
My personal experience of policing in Fredericton provides strong anecdotal evidence in support of the need for better education. One example, the Saint Mary`s First Nation, is located within the city of Fredericton and our police service provided, and still does, policing services through a quadripartite agreement between the Band, the city, the province, and the federal government. Most of the officers with whom I worked struggled to understand why the experience of policing in the First Nation was so different than other neighbourhoods in the city. Most tried hard to provide good service, but few went the extra mile to build an understanding with the residents. Many officers felt disliked and disrespected. Some officers reacted in a predictably unprofessional manner, but none of these officers understood the legacy of the residential school system. They did not have the right education. This personal example can be applied to many areas across Canada.
Without understanding the context within which policing happens, we will always struggle to meet the needs of the people we police. Better education, through post-secondary institutions, tailored to meet the needs of modern policing is critical to maintaining the public faith in modern Canadian policing.