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Just what are Canada's police paid to protect?

Four questions about the nature of policing


This article is based on a submission to the Special Legislative Committee on reforming Canada’s Police Act. See Part 1 here

Samir Gandesha
7 April 2021, 10.55am
Gustafsen Lake standoff, 1995.
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Vimeo screenshot.

My personal encounters with the police as well as my observations of policing behaviours during APEC, the G20 Summit as well as during the 2010 Olympics, Gustafson Lake as well as Burnaby Mountain and the on-going situation on Wet’suwet’en territories, lead me to pose serious questions about whether the public good is being properly “served” and “protected” by law enforcement ­– as currently constituted – in this province in particular but this also of course extends to the country as a whole.

History teaches us that unless the weakest and most vulnerable members are safe and secure in our society, then, at the end of the day, no citizen is.

I would like to emphasize that my personal interactions with the police have not been uniformly negative; far from it. Despite certain unpleasant early experiences, I therefore possess no particular animus towards law enforcement. I do not view individual police officers through a moral lens, as either “good” or “bad,” but, rather, regard them just as just ordinary persons, like you and I, simply doing their jobs according to their training and to the best of their ability.

However, at the same time, as part of this training – as with the armed forces (see Gwynne Dyer’s excellent 1985 documentary Anyone’s Son Will Do) – police officers are socialized into roles that often entail maintaining rather than dismantling myriad systems of oppression and structural violence.

Our emphasis ought to be precisely on these roles individuals are required to play. This is an important point because it casts doubt on the idea that making law enforcement more 'diverse' is – on its own – to meaningfully reform policing.

The idea is that if police forces more closely resemble the communities they police, such forces will do so in a fairer and more just manner than if they did not.

I believe that such an assumption while, on the face of it reasonable and intuitive, would not necessarily stand up to the scrutiny of critical judgment in light of empirical evidence.

Individual racialized persons can, themselves, also uphold norms and structures of white supremacy, just as – we must never forget – individual white people can work energetically and constructively towards its dismantling. The issue is not just black and white.

It casts doubt on the idea that making law enforcement more 'diverse' is – on its own – to meaningfully reform policing

So, as I have already said, I see my role here today as one of posing questions. Such questions include but are not limited to the following:

  • Is the purpose of policing really to serve and to protect the public? Or is it to serve and protect the wealthy, powerful and influential? Who, in fact, is included in and who is excluded from the dominant definition and image of the “public?”
  • Is the purpose of policing to enforce the laws in an egalitarian and genuinely democratic order or is it to maintain existing forms of socio-economic inequality, hierarchy and social exclusion that undermines the egalitarian foundations of such a democratic order?
  • Is the purpose of policing to support and help build up communities or is it to tear them down either by commission (i.e. police brutality), or omission (i.e. the withholding or withdrawal of resources)?
  • Is it the role of law enforcement’s leadership to challenge the structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, white privilege, racism and sexism more generally? Or is it to reinforce such structures? One cannot, for example, dismantle systemic racism if one denies its existence.

Many of my Indigenous colleagues, associates and friends are steadfastly committed to the view that policing as currently constituted is a function of settler colonialism. Insofar as they are working actively and energetically to dismantle settler colonialism, and also for the advent of genuine nation-to-nation relations, many Indigenous peoples are also committed to the abolition of law enforcement, at least as we know it. As the OISE academic, Professor Rinaldo Walcott, has recently reminded us in his book on property, the demand for the abolition of the police is historically tied to the first demand for abolition on this continent, namely: for the abolition of the institution of slavery.

Indigenous peoples (like many in the black community) are deeply skeptical of the very possibility of police reform. And who can blame them?

But the demand to “Defund the police” that we hear from many quarters after the death of George Floyd, isn’t simply about decreasing funding for law enforcement. Rather, as philosopher, writer and long-time civil rights activist, Angela Davis, recently stated:

“It’s about shifting public funds to new services and new institutions – mental health counselors, who can respond to people who are in crisis without arms. It’s about shifting funding to education, to housing, to recreation. All of these things help to create security and safety. It’s about learning that safety, safeguarded by violence, is not really safety.” (Democracy Now! Sept 07, 2020).

For the sake of argument, let’s say that police reform is both (i) a possibility and (ii) worth pursuing. What might such reform look like?

This piece was first published in the April edition of Splinters.

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