Living in the Greater Toronto Area and Canada as a whole, there seems to be a lack of focus and attention towards policing. In fact, when it comes to police violence and policing in general, we mostly associate such issues with the United States.
Our perceptions when it comes to the police in Canada are rosy to say the least, and while there are distinctions to be made with regards to the techniques of policing and law enforcement in comparison to the United States, we shouldn’t be less critical in engaging in the necessary discourse, dialogue, and action when it comes to the police.
Recently, we’ve been watching a rise in instances of police brutality across the United States, with high-profile cases such as those concerning the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. We have also witnessed the mobilization of grassroots movements, with groups such as Black Lives Matter taking shape, demanding justice and an end to such abusive police power.
However, Canada is no stranger to occurrences of police violence resulting in the deaths of unarmed, predominantly-black males. Only last August, Ottawa police officers trying to make an arrest violently beat and killed 37-year-old Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali-Canadian, who suffered from mental illness.
This is part of a larger pattern of police violence, in which officers resort to using abusive force or fatal methods in response to confrontations. In the GTA, within the last three years alone, cases such as those of Sammy Yatim, Andrew Loku, and Jermaine Carby, showcase such elements of fatal use of force by the police. These cases have led to much outrage.
Carby’s case, the family of whom has now sued Peel Regional Police after the SIU cleared the officer in question of any criminal wrongdoing, is of great importance because of the controversial practice of carding. While carding has recently been subject to new regulations in Ontario (and calls for suspension), there is still much debate over its use. Critics have blasted the lack of oversight as well as how it tramples on the rights of racialized peoples.
Carding is a “random” or arbitrary stopping of an individual by the police. The individual’s identification is requested and then entered into a database for an unknown period of time. While the practice may be described as random, it has been highlighted in the past as a discriminatory policy and an inherent example of racial profiling, since it uses race and ethnicity as markers for who deserves to be questioned. This leads to the disproportional targeting of black individuals, especially in the inner city.
While such incidents of police violence and brutality may not be as widespread or commonplace on a regular basis as in the U.S., it’s evident that the GTA does face its own complexities when it comes to the police and their relationship with the public. In order to better understand this association and what it means, I recently sat down with UTM assistant professor of sociology Akwasi Owusu-Bempah.
Owusu-Bempah’s work largely focuses on the intersections between policing, race, crime, criminal (in)justice, and the citizenry. Born in the United Kingdom and having moved to Canada at the age of nine, he once had aspirations of becoming a police officer himself, but instead ended up studying policing. This was mainly due to the Toronto Star’s reports on racial profiling that were published during his first year as a criminology student at Carleton University. While he termed much of his own experiences with the police as fairly positive, Owusu-Bempah stressed that there are evident problems within the police force, such as that of discrimination.
Last week, Owusu-Bempah delivered a talk entitled, “Race and Policing in the GTA”, through a “UTM In Your Neighbourhood” event, where he presented his findings on this subject. As part of his investigations into the correlations between policing, race, and the perceptions of both police officers and civilians, he surveyed the views and experiences of a representative sample of 1,522 Torontonians. The sample was evenly split between black, white, and Chinese individuals, and included 328 young black men who had been in conflict with the law, and 51 black police officers.
Owusu-Bempah has labelled his findings as a theory of “mutual disdain”, in which, because of pre-conceived notions, both police officers and those targeted by police enter an encounter with imagined possibilities as to what can occur. This influences how the encounter is handled by both parties, therefore directly affecting the result of the interaction.
“Because of a history of negative encounters, both the police and black citizens are going into this encounter with an idea of what is going to happen, and they often have a mutual disdain for one another based on these past experiences,” he said.
Owusu-Bempah described that this plays out as a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, where both sides expect disrespect from one another, and this negatively impacts the encounter. He went on to acknowledge, “As a black citizen, one would feel they are unfairly being targeted by the police because of their race, and the police officer thus would react based on the hostilities he/she may have encountered in the past from black citizens.”
He explained that this phenomenon exists within both the United States and Canada. In order to understand the similarities between policing in both countries, Owusu-Bempah also mentioned the historical roots of heavily-racialized policing. According to him, just as the law enforcement in the United States stems from the slave patrols of the past, in Canada, a similar development took place with the North West Mounted Police. They were tasked with controlling and carrying out the settling of the west, making expansion possible and allowing businesses to move in. While there exists this history of racialized policing, in contrast to the U.S., Canada’s prison or justice systems are not as large, nor can such blatant comparisons be made, given the different histories and societies at play.
However, Owusu-Bempah stressed that if we are to see a change in policing and an overall shift in police culture, roles must be played from both sides. He believes change can come from existing government institutions and police boards. But the role of the general citizenry in educating themselves on policing and how to appropriately handle encounters with the police is vital to seeing progress.