Over the past few months the WLU blog has taken a magnifying glass to some of the most pressing topics in Canadian law enforcement today, including cybercrime, fentanyl abuse and distracted driving. Our final post in the series is a shift in perspective. Rather than looking outward at the crimes police are sworn to prevent, we now want to consider the question of how law enforcement authorities can create anti-oppression frameworks within their own departments. Laurier is actually already playing a role in this regard, as our online BA in policing program includes a strong focus on topics like intercultural communication, policing in diverse communities and police psychology, all of which are closely tied to the anti-oppression project. As you will see, education is essential to meeting these challenges.
What is Anti-Oppression?
Oppression can be defined as the power of one group to silence, marginalize or subordinate another.[i] These power dynamics are often discussed in terms of race (e.g. white supremacy) or gender (e.g. patriarchy), but oppression can also manifest itself through classism, homophobia, ableism and other forms. Anti-oppression then is the effort to recognize how these power imbalances develop and perpetuate themselves, and the measures each of us can take to mitigate them.
Although Canadian news is sometimes drowned out by the sheer volume of our neighbours to the south, as the CBC notes, blacks account for 36.5% of fatalities stemming from encounters with Toronto police, despite making up just 8.3% of the city’s population.[ii]
“Police in Canada have embraced the notion of community policing and public engagement for many, many years,” said Tom Stamatakis, President of the Canadian Police Association, in response to claims that Canada’s issues are of comparable severity to those in the US.[iii] He highlights diversity training and the relative strength of independent overseers as evidence.
Stamatakis comments about community involvement should not be overlooked. As The Walrus has noted, immigrants and marginalized populations often tend to look at the police as “an occupying army rather than a state entity intended to serve and protect [them].”[iv] By making an effort to involve themselves in the lives of the communities they patrol, police and citizens alike can begin to recognize one another outside of their fixed social roles. Across Canada, many officers already take time to volunteer as youth coaches, mentors and educators. These actions build trust with community members, and also increase the likelihood that officers will be able to use this familiarity to safely de-escalate situations.
Consider this comment from a black officer, when asked to discuss the importance of putting himself in a community member’s shoes:
“By the time you’ve been on [the force] for any length of time you’ve probably searched thousands of people. You forget how intrusive that is. Now if you’re a young black person . . . if you’re anybody—it doesn’t matter what age or race—if you end up getting stopped twice a week and searched every time, that is very undignified, and you’re doing it in public. You know, people are walking by that you know think you’re a great kid or a great person and they see the cops . . . like what does that do to the psyche of the person?”[v]
This segues into our second bulwark, anti-oppression training. Anti-oppression training is intended to bring these considerations to the attention of officers, and periodically refresh the lesson. Learning what causes have conspired to hold certain groups of people in poverty, and how their past experiences with police have fomented distrust, is essential to showing officers how new approaches can reduce risk for both parties.
Many officers have no prior experience with the cultures of the neighbourhoods they patrol before they are assigned a beat. The meanings of gestures, physical bearing, even eye contact can vary widely across cultural groups, which opens up great potential for misunderstanding. Anti-oppression training of this nature can begin early in an officer’s education; as we mentioned earlier, aspects of this approach are baked into Laurier’s policing curriculum. As more officers are hired who hold post-secondary degrees, these learnings will dovetail nicely with on-the-job anti-oppression training they will receive throughout their careers.
Diversifying the Racial Profile and Personality Types in Police Departments
The final bulwarks we’ll mention here are diversifying the racial profile of police departments and diversifying the personality types of departmental hires. These go together because they both testify to the types of people who have been allowed to become officers in the past, and whom departments should be targeting in future.
Virtually no major city in Canada has a department that is as racially diverse as the population it serves.[vi] This reminds us that throughout Canada’s history the police have been white- (and male-, and straight-) dominated, a fact which has marginalized the perspectives of others. Moreover, studies have shown “Over time and in the main, cops tend to think like other cops, regardless of ethnicity.”[vii]
What “thinking like other cops” means therefore, is thinking like the older, white cops who have established departmental culture, and who may not be as in touch with the needs of increasingly diverse communities. A greater range of skin tones will not automatically build confidence in the police, but it may help alleviate the feeling that the police are an instrument of oppression originating outside the community.
Meanwhile, diversifying the personality types of police officers speaks both to the potential impact of anti-oppression training, and of changing recruitment strategies. Another officer of colour, speaking anonymously to The Walrus had the following to say:
“I think it sometimes goes back to, ‘Are we selecting the right type of people into the organization?’ and I’m talking personality-wise. We tend to attract people who are take-charge, very one-dimensional in terms of their problem solving ability. ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to do; you’re going to follow me,’ and quite often those people who lead cannot be led, and that’s one of our problems.”[viii]
Much as increasing numbers of women in the military and police services have had a demonstrable effect on conflict resolution outcomes, so too may seeking candidates from a wider array of backgrounds, and with different “soft skills,” help to evolve the attitudes of officers as they strive to meet the demands of their all-important work.