Difficult conversations about policing need to actually start

(source: http://instagram.com/p/wXsbBojZLx/)

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The police don’t want to hear that they’re doing anything wrong. They don’t want any “anti-police rhetoric” ((Cool the anti-police rhetoric: McCormack). They want us to obey (Police Officer: ‘if you don’t want to get shot…just do what I tell you.’). We’re supposed to trust that their interests are our interests. But, trust. They don’t really have it any more, do they?

“The police has no right to expect the public’s trust if it’s not willing to put the public interest ahead of their own sense of loyalty toward their fellow officers.” (Matt Gurney: Officer Bubbles makes good)

That’s from 2012. After the G20 in Toronto. Since then, across the United States and in Canada, trust in police has only eroded further. But, the message from police continues to be: stop questioning us.

Obey.

Stop protesting.

Obey.

What message does it send to us when that’s the only thing the police tell us?

There’s a problem

This year, it looks like something changed. People most directly impacted by this problem (police brutality, misconduct, dominance and a system that doesn’t care to make police accountable) are rising up to tell us that they’re not going to take it any more.

It seems important to listen to them, amplify their voices and join them in changing a system that doesn’t actually work for any of us.

Jay Smooth:

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BREAKING: Questioning & protesting police conduct isn’t “anti-police rhetoric”

Important, too, in Toronto, where we have a Police Association president who is so quickly ready to deny legitimate concerns of police conduct and silence dissenting voices: “These difficult conversations absolutely need to continue but we now know that there are consequences when individuals, groups and politicians post irresponsible anti-police rhetoric, for the sole purpose of inflaming an already volatile situation” (Cool the anti-police rhetoric: McCormack).

If Mike McCormack followed his own advice, there may actually be space for a real conversation. But, we know his claim about having “difficult conversations” is simply completely disingenuous. As it is, he needs to simply get out of the way and let someone else handle the police perspective. He’s not the person to even remotely lead a public conversation about whether policing needs to change (spoiler alert: yes, yes it does).

Difficult conversations about policing, with police, simply don’t happen.

In case you missed it, the message and conversation is quite different: Police Officer: ‘if you don’t want to get shot…just do what I tell you.’

When there is a community conversation, police simply reject the evidence, even when it’s clearly, respectfully and coherently placed before them (Police Chief Bill Blair Rejects Damning Report on Carding). When the evidence is damning:

“Ninety-three per cent of survey participants said they were unaware of the new policy; of survey participants who had been carded, nearly half said police had spoken to them disrespectfully; a third of respondents said police told them they fit the description of a criminal suspect; one quarter of those carded said they feel as if the police are constantly watching them; and one quarter said they avoid going out at certain times because of police.”

the response is to double down on the rhetoric: “There are many facts that contradict the conclusions of this report,” said Blair following a presentation by the report’s author.”

The attempt at “difficult conversation” of a real and unresolved issue (important to note timing: all of this precedes the killing of 2 NYPD officers) is to be ignored, but not for lack of trying:

“Your predecessor, Bill Blair, seemed to believe it was his job to defend and downplay the serial racial profiling and documentation of black and brown bodies in Toronto by our police. Your job is not to defend racist policing. Your job is to expose it, condemn it, and ultimately stamp it out.” (An Open Letter to Toronto’s Next Police Chief)

Even now, when Chief Blair has “suspended” carding in Toronto, correctly, advocates are unimpressed: “Suspending the practice won’t stop police from making harassing stops, it will only put an end to accountability.” (Reform carding, don’t pretend to end it: James)

All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again (daily, apparently)

I’m no expert in policing. But, I know I don’t like what I see. I know that I haven’t liked it since Robert Dziekan’ski was murdered by 4 RCMP officers in 2007, where there was no justice. I know I lost even more respect for police after the way they handled peaceful protest at the 2010 G20 in Toronto, where there was no justice. I know I can’t offer respect to Toronto Police when the Toronto Star shows them their willful racism in 2002 (Singled out). How, noting, 10 years later, not much had changed (Known to police), they took another look (Known to police: How the Star analyzed Toronto police stop and arrest data).

Third time lucky? (Toronto police ‘carding’ policy to be assessed by third-party)

I mean, it’s not like institutional racism exists in policing, right (Off duty, black cops in New York feel threat from fellow police)?

A snippet of the “difficult conversation”:

“You know, words have power. Words have meaning… I’ve heard officers refer to black people, in front of me, as chimps.

You’ve heard white officers refer to black people in Toronto as chimps?

Right. Absolutely I have.

Did you call them on that?

Of course. And, well ‘we don’t mean you.’ I’ll be very honest with you. It puts you in a hard spot. I don’t want to get ahead of myself and forget that I was a police officer and very often I did nothing or I contributed to the subculture. Because, you do. Because, you have to work with people and you’re there and there’s also a safety issue… To deal with that subculture, you have to start making witness officers accountable. They’ve sworn an oath to uphold the law, whether it’s a police officer breaking the law or a non-police officer breaking the law. I think it’s important that we start making them accountable.”

Note: “Did you call them on that?” Really? It’s just that simple, is it? It’s up to the black police officer to civilize his racist colleagues? It reminds me of how families of victims of police brutality and murder are expected to calm the public and ask them to reject violence in their response to injustice.

It’s mind boggingly ridiculous.

Police militarization is real, it’s increasing and it’s a problem

“What has happened in Ferguson has left many across the United States and Canada and around the world feeling deeply unsettled that rather than deescalating the situation, the militarized police response had the reverse effect of making communities feel less secure and vulnerable and served as a cautionary tale of how fundamental civil and human rights as well as constitutional rights can appear to quickly evaporate at the hands of militarized police.” (The Changing, Militarized Face of Policing Shatters Public Trust and Confidence)

Like I said, I’m not an expert. So, how about someone who is? David C. Couper served for 25 years as Madison, U.S. police chief (34 years total as a police officer). I’m going to suggest he has some expertise about policing. And, a recent message of his is pretty clear: A Lesson From Ferguson: It’s Time to End Domination Policing.

The title should be enough for you to click and read his article. But, if you need further prodding, from this introduction, it becomes clear both how huge a problem we have and also how many actors need to reflect on their responsibility in the chain of police misconduct:

“My narrow focus here is the police because they are the part of the system I know best. But police are only one part of a very large system of law enforcement and social control within our country. A system that not only uses police as the initial entry point, but also depends on many others such as courts, prosecutors, probation officers, prisons, and even legislators to do their part. Buttressing this giant system of social control are the attitudes and beliefs we hold about race, crime, drugs, and mental illness. These factors, taken together, form and maintain this giant system that is in need of major structural change.”

A little more:

“What’s happened in Ferguson is not about Darren Wilson or Michael Brown, or even about the city and its police department. Instead, it’s about a practice of policing that dominates rather than serves. For me, the best description of this style is domination policing. It is a method and practice designed to hold-down, control, and intimidate one group of people for the benefit of another. Policing by domination violates our nation’s principles, enduring values and Constitution. Unfortunately, it is alive and well today in America.”

Replace America with Canada and you start to see how this problem is becoming a problem for us all. John Lorinc recently captured the reality and descent of police into increasingly militarized domination policing (Armed and Dangerous: How mission creep is turning our cops into warriors).

Police politicization and protest

We should be concerned “how mission creep is turning our cops into warriors.” We should also be concerned about the contempt police show for us not only by how they treat us, but also in their public statements and actions, and how they abuse their power. In New York, after the unacceptable murder of 2 of their colleagues, NYPD police turned their backs on the mayor at the hospital and again one of the officer’s funerals. They join a pretty infamous group that also stages protests at funerals:

But, they’re not alone.

Toronto Police Association head Mike McCormack? Remember him, of the “difficult conversations” that “absolutely need to continue?”

“Pretty well every officer turned and gave their back,” McCormack said Saturday. “And that’s due to inflammatory comments that the mayor has been making around police and relations with the community.”

“Rightfully so,” he added.” (Canadian police in New York ‘show solidarity’ for slain officer)

Toronto police have also staged protests in full uniform before (Toronto Police Accountability Bulletin No. 24):

“The Association convened a rally from Union Station up to City Hall and, contrary to the advice of the Chief, urged officers to appear in full uniform. Chief Blair indicated that it was inappropriate for a police officer involved in a demonstration and not on duty to appear in uniform, carrying a gun and other paraphernalia. Several hundred officers joined in the rally, and close to one hundred were in uniform. The chief indicated he would take disciplinary action.”

Of course, as is typical with the ever-thickening blue line, “in lieu of formal disciplinary action, officers who had attended the march in uniform would be docked three days pay with no notation on their work record of their unwillingness to follow the chiefs order.”

During the Toronto G20, police officers removed their name tags. Clearly, they planned to act unacceptably toward the peacefully protesting public. What else can you conclude from such an action? 90 of them were disciplined. Their punishment? One day suspension without pay (seriously). When 9 were refused promotions because of actions clearly showing contempt for the public and conduct unbecoming of a police officer, they were simply supported by the Chief and police association (Police board won’t promote disciplined G20 officers). What message does this send to the public?

In British Columbia, Delta police have only recently stopped promoting and selling wristbands in support of an officer charged with murder (Delta police halt promotion of campaign supporting officer charged with murder). A police spokesperson: “We are always working to address people’s concerns, and if this is a concern for the general public, and they’d like it removed from our website, I have no problem doing that,” Hall said.” After months of selling them. After they’d basically sold out their first order of wristbands. Does it matter that Delta police still supports the campaign (B.C. police force defends wristband campaign to support officer charged in shooting death)? Does it matter that the official police website still contains a blog with an officer sharing incendiary editorials about the case (Murder charge against cop makes no sense)? Is the official police website the place for this editorializing to occur?

In case you missed it, the officer is not accused of, but charged with, murder. Apparently, the legal system is something it’s OK for the police to simply ignore. What message does this send to the public?

“Micheal Vonn, policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said that while she supports individual officers expressing their opinions about the court case, the police department should not be promoting the wristbands. “Our problem here is that the police department as an entity, as an institution, is required to stay absolutely unbiased in terms of prosecution,” Vonn said. “The public cannot understand this gesture in any other way than essentially siding with (someone on) something that is before the courts.”” (Delta police halt promotion of campaign supporting officer charged with murder)

So, the wristbands will be sold by the local police association. But, isn’t the damage done? Isn’t the institutional bias and contempt for due process shown by the police a huge problem? They don’t seem to think so. What message does this send?

Speaking of contempt, you can’t contemplate the current policing environment in Canada and not look at this obscenity:

“After she asked for his name and badge number, things got really ugly. Ms. Farrell says Sgt. Watson kicked her in the side of her knee, breaking her leg and sending her to the ground. He then punched her in the face and climbed on top of her, pressing her face into the concrete, she adds. “I thought I was going to die.”

Then, he and two other officers dragged her, broken leg and all, to a police car, and had to struggle to get her in the car because her leg wouldn’t bend properly, her lawyer, Angela McLeod, adds.

In hospital, she was charged with assaulting and obstructing a police officer.”(She was helping a mugging victim – and an Ontario cop beat her up for it)

How quickly does that simply lead to: Police Officer: ‘if you don’t want to get shot…just do what I tell you.’

Police aren’t listening, they’re not interested in listening

Back to Toronto, the racist practice of police carding, and the need for “difficult conversations.” How can a “difficult conversation” occur when the police willfully ignore clear evidence placed before them that there is a systemic problem; when their representatives simply reject findings and evidence, (Police Chief Bill Blair Rejects Damning Report on Carding), attack advocates for reform and then demand that everyone tone down any “anti-police rhetoric” (McCormack won’t back down on Mukherjee). What message does this send?

What of police who want to show the public that they and many of them do not serve the public with contempt? That they, in fact, want to serve the public with justice? Don’t worry, they’ll be put back in place behind the ever-thickening blue line in due time (Buffalo Cop Loses Job And Pension After She Intervenes With Fellow Officer Choking A Suspect. Also, Officer found rat on car after assisting probe of colleagues).

“Crisis of Distrust”

It’s not shocking that people are fed up and are just not going to take it any more. The question is, when will the police realize they are a significant part of the problem and actually want to have a meaningful discussion with the communities they’re supposed to serve?

The anger towards police is real, just and requires attention. Outside of a commitment to make massive, actual change in police institutional and public attitudes, how, possibly, could the “difficult conversation” ever actually take place?

If you’ve read this far, thanks. I appreciate that you stayed with me. If you haven’t yet seen this, I think it’s worth another 29 minutes of your time:

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marco

Communications in social services/social change, immigration, diversity & inclusion in Toronto. Wannabe librarian, interested in nonprofit tech innovation.

Communications in social services/social change, immigration, diversity & inclusion in Toronto. Wannabe librarian, interested in nonprofit tech innovation.

2 Responses to “Difficult conversations about policing need to actually start”

  1. Andrew Griffith says:

    Thanks for highlighting some of the issues in your comprehensive overview. I would also link to subconscious biases in addition to the examples you cited.

    • Marco says:

      Thanks, Andrew, for taking the time to read my post. Subconscious bias is definitely a topic that is worth delving into. I think in this piece, I was interested in looking at some of the structural and cultural issues facing policing, including the domination model and systemic racism. I agree, though, that taking a look at the subconscious bias of individual officers themselves would be worth a look and how our society reinforces those biases. There has been some good writing on that recently, including coverage of interesting online tests individuals can take to test their own bias, and interesting reports about bias and security/policing. Thanks for your insight.

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