Despite several decades of celebrating community policing, certain communities have been over-policed, discriminated against and abused by systemic inequalities.
The inequalities loudly and persistently decried are proven by the statistical realities of arrest and incarceration rates, and by the video evidence of victims of policing bias.
Countries like Canada, Australia, Britain, France and the United States have been offered as examples of universally-accepted norms of inclusivity and sustainable civil processes based on social justice.
But much of that is challenged by the masses of protesters around the world.
Societies struggle with the titanic influences of globalization, nationalism and sectarian conflicts. All that has a direct impact on security services and how they respond. Ultimately, the institutions entrusted with the maintenance of safe and secure communities have failed dismally.
It’s easy to focus on the incidents of police brutality as the result of the actions of a few bad officers. The tendency will be to return to the tried and true response of focusing on the trial and, hopefully, conviction of the four officers involved in the death of George Floyd. The tendency will be to again focus on procedural justice, on enlisting community leaders to dialogue on policing, and perhaps introduce a few new procedures on the use of force.
Once again police executives will huddle and draw on best practices from the inevitable group-thinks that will follow the present crisis.
It will all look good. It will all be very professional, inclusive of community leaders, victims’ families, prosecutors, mayors, lawyers and academics. The problem is that the focus will almost certainly not be on those who bear the greatest burden of responsibility.
Allow me to be cynical – after a lifetime of policing and now several years trying to change policing, I have some insight into the culture of policing.
It’s said that you can’t think outside the box until you know you’re in a box. Policing, despite its facade of altruism and professionalism, remains incredibly insular, self-promoting and conservative. Even following the death of Floyd, police leaders across the world have demonstrated this propensity for promotional policing.
There has been a spree of police leaders taking a knee in recognition of the death of Floyd. It’s a great sentiment and has been noticed by protesters and media. Those who have taken a knee have found themselves suddenly less prone to criticism. They differentiated themselves from the four officers involved in the death. And they have seen protests diminish in their communities.
Yet the policies of these same leaders have resulted in the failure of the judicious application of discretion, disproportionate arrests of marginalized communities and a culture that resulted in abuse of authority. These very officers must be held accountable for measuring arrests over assists and charges over cautions. They’ve failed until now to speak up despite the overwhelming evidence that there are systemic inequities in the criminal justice system, a system in which they have held leadership roles.
Under their watch, inappropriate members have been hired, trained, examined and passed probationary periods. Officers sanctioned for abuse of power or misconduct retain the same levels of authority and seniority.
These executives have failed to take on police associations and failed to make policy changes to expeditiously expel officers unsuited to the job.
And under their watch, entire communities have been burned, looted and victimized.
Too many believe policing is a profession unlike any other. They believe the oaths of office and secrecy, which most police departments require, mean civilians can’t understand their challenges and stresses.
In fact, policing is like any other profession. It requires empathy, commitment and passion.
How is a front-line police officer different from a social worker or parole officer who must rigorously adhere to the procedural requirements, but still have empathy and exercise discretion?
How is a detective different from an airline crash investigator who determines the cause of an accident from a jumbled mess of metal and carnage?
How is a police officer different from a teacher who must educate and inform even under the most challenging and sometimes abusive conditions?
Change can’t come from some promotional, cover-your-butt, superficial responses. Change can’t be of the types delivered after the dozens of previous incidents. Change has to be cultural, more than skin deep.
Police leaders hold Sir Robert Peel as an icon of modern policing. Some police executives might even remember a few of his principles. But knowing those principles, and doing or appearing to do what’s required, is far from delivering on the intent.
Enough of meaningless community-police meetings where the police decide when the meeting is held, who gets to be at the meeting and the agenda, and control the funding.
Enough of pretty presentations and token officers assigned to community policing duties. It’s all semantics if community policing officers play basketball with the neighborhood youth in the afternoon, only to be replaced by patrol cars after dark, and armored tactical teams are sent in when the undercover operation is concluded. Where’s the consistency, the procedural integrity that builds trust, respect and co-operation?
Where’s the fairness when a police officer earns more than a teacher, a nurse, a firefighter or social worker?
Where’s the fairness when a police officer is rewarded with overtime for making arrests or going to court on a day off?
Where’s the fairness when the number of criminals arrested determines performance and not how safe people feel in their communities?
Where’s the fairness when police board members assigned to represent citizens don’t understand policing?
Where’s the fairness when a police chief fails to deliver, but earns as much as a provincial premier or the prime minister?
The real shame is that while protesters have focused on an incredibly important issue, their lack of understanding of the hidden police culture will again only result in superficial changes. And that means festering cinders will remain to ignite another bonfire.
Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Anil served as a police officer for 29 years, including work with the Ipperwash Inquiry and Interpol.