It’s been disconcerting to watch the state of police-community relations south of the border deteriorate into mass protests, violent confrontations, and the tragic abuses of police powers recorded on video for everyone to see. It’s easy to become a little smug given the relative social calm and respect for authority we enjoy north of the border. But Canadian police services have had their own share of incidents that have signalled deeper issues; issues with racism, systemic bias, and an institutional culture resistant to reform. Canadian police leadership needs to be less smug when it comes to measures of community satisfaction compared to their counterparts south of the border.
There are ample signs that policing in Canada is not perfect. We have just come past the issue of carding. Peel police chief Jennifer Evans until her retirement refused to suspend carding, ignoring her police board’s instruction to halt the controversial practice.
Now Commissioner Brenda Lucki, the most senior police officer in Canada, says that she is struggling with the definition of systemic racism.1 Perhaps Commissioner Lucki had not yet read Reclaiming Power and Place: A Supplementary Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).2 Anyone who has read the report cannot be left with any doubt about what systemic racism means. And since the report is highly critical of the RCMP, Commissioner Lucki’s statement kicks the problematic can down the road once again.
The MMIWG report within, the first few pages of its two volumes, states:
Our most important objection to providing additional funding to the RCMP in this manner is that, once again, this involves police policing themselves. The RCMP have not proven to Canada that they are capable of holding themselves to account – and, in fact, many of the truths shared here speak to ongoing issues of systemic and individual racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination that prevent honest oversight from taking place.3
What does the Commissioner’s statement signal to the First Nations Peoples? That she has not read, or dismisses this seminal report, or worse, just does not comprehend the significance to reforming systems that are clearly flawed. It also signals to RCMP members across the organization, and police services across Canada, that systemic racism can be dismissed. Unfortunately, the damage resulting from Commissioner Lucki’s original statements will be difficult to redact.
Worse, the Prime Minister’s defence of the Commissioner signals that even he is not entirely moved by what systemic racism means to the affected parties. It is understandable that the Prime Minister would not want yet another senior female leader embroiled in a scandal, nor that he should once again appear insensitive to supporting a senior female official. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister’s position signals a willingness to undervalue what systemic racism means to First Nations Peoples and to the custodians of the systems implicated. Words and actions matter, and in this case both the Commissioner and the Prime Minister have sent the wrong signals.
Montreal police are just now releasing a policy on street checks, months after a damning independent report found evidence of systemic bias, stopping short of conclusively describing its as racial profiling. It is amazing that it was not until last October, police chief Sylvain Caron admitted that he was humbled and alarmed by trends in street checks, but stressed that it was a reflection of a lack of policy.4
The report found that Indigenous women were 11 times more likely to be questioned than their white counterparts; that Black and Indigenous Montrealers were between four and five times more likely to be subjected to stops while those of Arab descent were twice as likely to be stopped.
Again, it prompts the question: what was police chief Sylvain Caron doing while the rest of Canada was so publicly grappling with the systemic unfairness, illegality, and harm of carding?
These types of fiduciary shortcomings are indicative of a cultural deficit for community values, community concerns, and normative social trends, let alone legal and ethical obligations. It is indicative of the gap between the levels of satisfaction police leaders believe they have achieved and how communities actually perceive their police. It is in my view a symptom of the commercialization of policing into a surveillance-security industry complex, rather being what it should be, a social service constituted of public servants. It is also indicative of the extremely influential control exerted by police associations, which today have a tremendous influence on how police leaders manage and hold accountable their officers. It is an indication of the tail wagging the dog; police leaders reluctant to draw the criticism of association continue to tolerate policies that should have been reformed much earlier.
Policing in Canada, like much of the Commonwealth, is founded on the principles espoused by Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing. Every cadet is taught these principles, and has them reinforced throughout their careers, including the principle that ‘the police are the people and the people are the police’.
The Ottawa Police Service’s web site has an entire page dedicated to these principles, noting:
These nine (9) principles were so intuitive at the time and obviously based on some significant thought on the topic, that they have remained as the main ingredient for police success over the last two centuries in all democratic countries across the world. Police leaders top-down still use and quote them frequently as good reminders of “community policing” and the reasons we exist.5
There is a renewed interest in these principles, by the media and the public; principles that represent a normative social contract between the police and the public; a renewal of interest that should serve to legitimize the civil disobedience that is essential for mobilizing communities in their pursuit for reform. By the way, community mobilization has been a core aim of community policing for the past many decades.
Police services have been so caught up in promotional initiatives and the rhetorical extolment of community policing that they missed important signals of distress, concerns, and mobilization from the very communities they lamented could not coalesce for their own advocacy. It was community mobilization that resulted in the validation of 16,700 signatures submitted to the Clerk of the City of Montreal in 2018 forcing the Office de Consultation Publique de Montréal (OCPM) to organize and hold the consultation resulting in Report: Public Consultation on Systemic Racism and Discrimination within the Jurisdiction of the City of Montréal.6
Commissioner Lucki, who is struggling with the definition of systemic racism should be made aware that, the consultations this report on systemic racism notes:
In recent decades, numerous police forces have been accused of using racial profiling and targeting neighbourhoods with a high proportion of visible minorities. If predictive policing is based on the analysis of data collected in a context of institutionalized racism and discrimination, this technology has the potential to create a vicious circle that only further targets visible minorities.7
Community policing, despite the absence of a universal definition, has always been about providing the tools and support for communities to identify their own concerns, for communities to prioritize their concerns, and to mobilize resources to address the challenge. This is the heart of community policing. Well, communities have done what has been asked of them. They have identified their concerns, prioritized them, and are now mobilized as never before.
Here are Sir Robert Peel’s principles, held as the guiding principles:8
- The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.
- The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.
- Police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
- The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.
- Police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to the public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.
- Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.
- Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
- Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.
- The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.
The first principle is self-evident. The primary purpose, and therefore measure of police efficiency and effectiveness should be crime prevention, not enforcement or apprehension. Yet a quick glance of contemporary measures of police performance reveals an over-reliance on measures of enforcement.
The second emphasizes the public’s approval: if the current reform movement is a gauge of approval then large segments remain dissatisfied; surely a sign of widespread disapproval of police actions.
The third and fourth principles are interdependent. There is no lack of reports of systemic bias, whether in policing, corrections services, or public health that signal excessive reliance on the use of physical force. There has been a militarization of policing in recent decades, which has become systemic; a militarization that has contributed to the diminishment of trust and of cooperation, resulting in diminishing legitimacy and therefore observance of norms and laws.
The fifth principle of preserving public favour, not by catering to the public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law, may be the one principle that is today less applicable than in the past. This principle is contrary to the second principle. It is difficult to gain the publics’ approval of police actions without catering to the publics’ opinion. But this is in fact what has occurred. Policing, in many instances, has demonstrated absolute impartiality for the law, with less importance for what the public opinion (norms) may be. Take for instance enforcement of laws on cannabis possession, enforcement of carding, or collection of intelligence. These practices have been partial; they have been unfair, and unjust. And where there has been a resort to impartiality it has been delivered in one form or another of zero tolerance.
The sixth principle of using physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient has also been marred by the increasing weaponization of police. Police officers on routine patrol today adorn so many use-of-force options that many have to wear special harnesses to support the weight. Pepper spray, extendible metal ASP, Taser, pistol and extra magazines, a bulletproof vest, handcuffs, and in many cases accompanying shotgun or sub-automatic rifle in the car are the routine tools of policing today. And this does not include a flashlight, police radio, memo book, and cell phone. It does not require a reformist to see that the trajectory of weaponization points to an increasingly unkind, hostile, and dangerous society. Surely there is a problem when this is the potential physical force necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order, where the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to have become patently insufficient.
The seventh principle, the most cited by police, states that the police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public, that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence. The meaning of this is clear. That the police are not above the public, they are public servants, representing public interest. This has been a challenging principle to achieve for the police, particularly in communities that have been fragmented by racism, class, religion, and ethnicity. In the early days of policing in Canada, police officers were predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant (WASP). Irish, Jews, minorities, or blacks could not even secure jobs as civilians in police stations. Policing represented the values of the WASP class. It took many decades before that changed. Today policing is generally better representative of the diversity of their communities, but despite the inclusion of women, minority groups, and recruitment of increasingly educated officers, there is a cultural indoctrination that persists, that mitigates the potential benefits of a representative police service, and has not resulted in the improvement of police-community relations one might expect. To draw on the reform and defund police movement, there remain large chasms separating the police from their communities. The gap may not always be due to disparities in colour, ethnicity, age, or sex, but it is certainly a gap of culture. The fact that Commissioner Lucki struggles with the definition of systemic racism is a clear indication of the extent of the gap.
Principle eight advises that the police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary. The reality is that a judiciary is a form of oversight over police actions and conduct, and while courts do provide oversight, they can also serve to undermine oversight. Officers become well informed about their position within the constitutional framework that restricts the judiciary from directly interfering in operational and investigative matters. And yet there are strong ‘exchange relationships’ formed with prosecutors, defence counsel, justices of the peace, and judges, which undermines the scope of oversight. Plea bargaining, the systematic tendency of the judiciary to give police the benefit of the doubt, the leniency with which the judiciary is perceived to treat police misconduct, are important signals of a nepotic relationship. While police may not have a direct impact on the judiciary, police officers, prosecutors, lawyers, and judges have an interdependent relationship. This relationship is prone to misunderstanding, suspicion, and cause for mistrust.
The last principle states that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it. If this is, in fact, a standard, then we are missing the mark completely. The degree to which we have missed the mark could not be more starkly evident than by comparing the image of an early 19th-century bobby, with that of a constable today. The degree of weaponization and technology deployed on a constable today could not have been imagined even a few decades ago. This is indicative of the role and relationship of policing with communities, then and now.
Police services have become highly sophisticated in measuring performance. A visit to most metropolitan police web sites provides a link to some form of statistical data about the crime rates in that community. Major crime indicators (homicides, sexual assaults, aggravated assaults, break and enters, thefts, and thefts from auto) are considered the most important measures. Most police services are able to provide detailed reports on crimes, locations of crimes, arrests, and charges. Statistical data, which validates how busy and how effective police services are in responding to crimes within their jurisdiction. There is, however, much less, if any, importance given to the perceptions of safety, of the impact of crime or lack of crimes on the quality of lives of citizens.
The focus of policing tends to be on crime control. As long as crimes are under control, generally by comparison to previous years’ performance data and in some instances cross-jurisdictional comparisons, then all is good. There are two issues with this thought process. First, the principle itself may be short-sighted. Just because crime is down and therefore police presence curtailed, does not necessarily also mean that citizens’ perceptions of safety align with reductions in crime. It would hardly be a success if violent crimes are brought under control, but citizens remain traumatized and fearful of using public spaces. The test of police efficiency does not end with the absence of crime and disorder; it ends with the return of normalcy.
This leads to the second point. Whose definition of normalcy? The measures employed by police services, while important and essential to measuring major crimes and other disorders, are their definitions and measures, and applied as equally important to all communities, when in fact what is of concern to one community may be very different to another. There is, therefore, a missed opportunity to consult with communities about what most impacts their sense of safety and quality of life.
No one is suggesting that homicides, sexual assaults, and robberies be degraded in priority over noise complaints and dog fouling. But what is being suggested is the informed and accountable application of the Broken Windows Theory. It is hardly appropriate if so much effort is spent on controlling violent crimes, without at least a proportionate investment in the smaller issues that impact communities’ sense of safety and quality of life. We don’t give up because we are overwhelmed by violent crimes, so why do we give up when overwhelmed by graffiti and neglect, particularly during times when crime rates are down.
There has been an apparent lack of responsiveness that has resulted in communities perceiving their police leaders and politicians as only ever intending to provide the capacity to mobilize in limited ways that suited their own interests. The widespread mobilization and support on issues of racism, social equity, or systemic barriers, is now uncomfortable and inconvenient for public leaders. For those in the reform movement, there is a sense of hypocrisy; a sense that the leaders who claimed that were the peoples’ police were never really the peoples’ police, that those who claimed to be impartial to the law have framed their application in ways that are clearly not impartial. There is resentment amongst the reform movement that even when they were willing to demonstrate voluntary observance of the law they were stopped, frisked and searched, often treated with less respect than they deserve, sometimes abused, and always marginalized.
Commissioner Lucki’s admission reinforces the grievances of affected communities and is an unintended revelation into the culture of police leadership.
Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
- Leblanc, Daniel; Kirkup, Kristy. “RCMP commissioner ‘struggles’ with definition of systemic racism, but denies its presence in organization” The Globe and Mail, June 11, 2020 https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-systemic-racism-not-present-in-rcmp-commissioner-says-though-some/ Accessed: August 5, 2020
- Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/ Accessed: August 5, 2020
- Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/ Volume 1 page 71, Accessed: August 5, 2020
- The Toronto Star. “Montreal police to announce street checks policy after systemic bias report” July 8, 2020 https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2020/07/08/montreal-police-to-announce-street-checks-policy-after-systemic-bias-report.html Accessed: August 5, 2020
- Ottawa Police Service. https://www.ottawapolice.ca/fr/about-us/peel-s-principles-.aspx Accessed: August 5, 2020
- Report: Public Consultation on Systemic Racism and Discrimination within the Jurisdiction of the City of Montréal. https://ocpm.qc.ca/sites/ocpm.qc.ca/files/pdf/P99/resume-reds_english.pdf Accessed: August 5, 2020
- Government of the United Kingdom, Home Office. Definition of policing by consent. Published 10 December 2012, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/policing-by-consent/definition-of-policing-by-consent Accessed: August 5, 2020