What are the similarities between Canadian and U.S. police forces?

US and Canadian flag
US and Canadian flag

Earlier this year we posted a blog comparing Canadian and American approaches to policing. In that article, we focused on the ways in which the two nations have differed. In today’s article, we’ll focus on the similarities of their respective countries’ law enforcement practices. 

Students in Wilfrid Laurier University’s online Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Policing and Criminology will be ready to fulfill Canadian police requirements, upon the successful completion of the program. 

Similar Cultures, Similar Departments

Canada and the United States are intermingled culturally. They are both lands with diverse Indigenous populations that were colonized in successive waves by western European nations and have become attractive destinations to emigres the world over. We share economic and political systems, and at our borders, in particular, our cultures can be difficult for visitors to distinguish.

It makes sense then that our police departments should be similar too. In both countries, police hierarchies have a paramilitary structure and are charged with protecting persons and property and maintaining public order. They even share an affinity for the colour blue. Unlike many European police services, the majority of Canadian and American officers carry firearms. 

Police training in Canada versus the U.S. also has a great deal of overlap. Some senior Canadian officers take specialized classes at the FBI’s National Academy,[i] while the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) approach to field training has proven influential on services like the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD.) [ii]  Police departments on both sides of the border look to each other for case studies, sometimes adopting crime prevention strategies that originated in the other country.

Integrating New Equipment

Following the 9/11 attacks of 2001, American police departments and their advocates in the state and national legislatures have pressed for enhancements to the equipment available to local officers. As a result, more military-grade weapons and vehicles are in the hands of municipal police forces than ever before. [iii] Virtually every American city now has at least one Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, and a number of counties have been able to acquire tanks and other armoured vehicles from the Department of Defence.

Canada has also seen an increase in the array of armaments available to police, with RCMP officers carrying submachine guns on Parliament Hill following a 2014 terrorist attack; [iv] while mid-sized cities like Windsor [v] and Halifax [vi] have invested in armoured rescue vehicles originally designed for the armed forces. Some studies have shown the SWAT teams are deployed in Canadian urban centres even more frequently than in their American counterparts. [vii] 

Supporters of these arsenals consider them useful for protecting both officers and the public in the event of emergencies, such as riots and other disasters. Critics have raised concerns that “a more militarized uniform can change both public perception of the police and how police see their own role in the community.” [viii] In both Canada and the U.S., there is a need for training that ensures officers are qualified to safely make use of this new equipment while reinforcing the fact that law enforcement tactics are distinct from those of the military.

Community Policing

Much of the work being performed by advocates of community policing strategies in both countries centres around teaching officers to understand the histories and cultures of the neighbourhoods they serve—and to form connections with community members so that officers and citizens recognize each other’s humanity. 

As we noted in an earlier blog on community policing, Canadian cities like Calgary and Toronto have initiated programs to help officers and at-risk youth connect with community members, reporting feeling more trust towards police and program costs potentially being offset by crime reduction.[ix] 

Likewise in the United States, over $14 billion USD has been spent since 1994 on community policing programs [x]. Cities like New York [xi], Los Angeles [xii] and San Francisco [xiii] have their own takes on the concept, despite the withdrawal of the Department of Justice from a national community policing program in 2018. David C. Couper, former Madison, WI police Chief in Madison, WI and a pioneer of community policing, notes that success requires a change in the mindset of officers: “Community policing is about how officers define themselves. If the police see themselves solely as law enforcement officers, then they’ll spend all their time looking for some broken laws to enforce.”[xiv]

Additionally, with the use of technologies such as GIS to aid in the allocation of resources, the use of new surveillance methodologies and data-sharing, joint policing in both countries is creating greater opportunities for consultation, cooperation, and accountability.

Conclusion

Although both countries have unique challenges, American police requirements and Canadian police requirements are largely the same: well-trained officers with a commitment to public service, a willingness to learn about those who are different from them and to respect those differences, and the ability to make wise decisions in high-pressure situations. 

To learn more about how police officers are trained academically, contact a representative from Laurier’s online BA in Policing and Criminology.

 

Sources

[i] A hard truth: Canada’s policing style is very similar to the U.S.

[ii] Los Angeles Police Department taught the Canadian way

[iii] A Decade After 9/11, Police Departments Are Increasingly Militarized

[iv] Mounties now toting submachine guns for Hill security 

[v] Windsor Police To Take Donated Military Vehicle Into Service 

[vi] Militarizing Our Police Force

[viii] Huffington Post. “A Decade After 9/11

[ix] Community policing in Canada: crime prevention through relationship building

[x] The US Has Spent $14B on Community Policing—What Have We Learned So Far?

[xi] Neighborhood policing program builds relationships to cut crime

[xii] LAPD Online. “News Release

[xiii] State to take on reform oversight at SF Police Department