We bounced along a pitted dirt road on an Indigenous reserve in Northern Ontario. As I leaned on my horn to convince a bored looking, semi-feral stray dog to move out of our path, I chatted with my passenger. She was a young Indigenous woman who worked at our police detachment as an administration assistant. It was midnight, and I was driving her home at the end of her shift because dangers—both canine and human—rendered it unsafe for our civilian staff members to walk home alone after dark. This woman, who I’ll call Grace, was 23 years old. She had recently returned to the reserve after spending a year in southern Ontario attending university. Raised in a home with two alcoholic parents, by the age of 14 she was pregnant. Another child with another father would follow before her 18th birthday. Neither of these men remained in her life.
Despite these challenges, Grace was a voracious reader who loved school. With the help of a supportive teacher and various government programs, she was able to complete school and get accepted to university. An arrangement was made whereby she would attend university down south while her parents, by now recovering alcoholics, looked after her children. Unfortunately, this potential success story would end in failure. Within a year, Grace’s parents had returned to drinking and she was forced to choose between withdrawing from school and returning to care for her children or losing them to foster care. She chose the former and the intergenerational cycle of defeat continued.
Activists invariably claim “racism” or a “lack of funding” are behind stories like these. But these are simplistic characterizations of complex problems. No fair-minded person wants to see a person like Grace fail. Indeed, recent years have seen a groundswell of public support demanding better outcomes for people like her. And Grace’s situation can hardly be attributed to a “lack of funding.” The financial and social supports were in place to help her achieve her goals. What undermined her were deep-rooted social pathologies that simply cannot be solved through corporate diversity programs, increased government funding, or vituperative Twitter campaigns that seek to defenestrate those who fail to stay current with the malleable tenets of the zeitgeist.
As a now senior Canadian police officer in my third decade of service, I have reflected on this experience quite a bit recently. Current orthodoxy would ascribe Grace’s situation to “systemic” racism. As I watch media, activists, academics, and opportunistic politicians push each other aside to denounce the men and women who patrol our communities as pawns of a systemically racist institution, I have been struck by the passionate intensity of their accusations. As I write this, the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Brenda Lucki, is fighting for her professional survival after admitting publicly that she “struggled” with the definition of systemic racism. For me and many other officers these attacks are bewildering because Commissioner Lucki echoes sentiments many of us hold. Some will argue that this is because we suffer from blind spots due to our privilege. Perhaps. But to that I would respond that our experience as police officers entitles us to a unique perspective on these issues not readily apparent to anyone who has never worn the uniform.
As calls to “defund police” continue, academics, activists, politicians, and other public figures are re-evaluating the role law enforcement plays in liberal democratic societies. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing. Societies are fluid, and society’s institutions must be fluid too. For years, a debate has raged within police and criminological circles about what exactly police should be doing. Mental health provides one example. Since the 1970s, virtually every jurisdiction in the Western world began the process of deinstitutionalization, which saw those suffering from psychiatric disorders treated within the community rather than warehoused in asylums. While this was a humane evolution, it also resulted in police officers becoming the default option when a person with a psychiatric disorder suffers emotional distress. Recent events have shown that this model needs re-evaluation. A greater emphasis on community-based mental health supports would be welcomed by mental health professionals, patient advocates, and police alike.
Another area in which activists and police leaders would no doubt find common ground relates to police accountability. Since the 1960s, the job protections afforded to police officers have grown exponentially stronger. There are legitimate reasons for this. Policing is an adversarial profession, and police officers need protections beyond those offered to other professions so that they can do their job effectively without being subject to improper influence. Think of a police officer who pulls over a powerful public figure for drunk driving. It benefits society that the officer can do his duty, confident that he will not be penalized for it. But the current police accountability system has grown dysfunctional. Disciplinary processes routinely take years rather than months and now rival criminal prosecutions in their complexity. The result is that it has become nearly impossible for police services to terminate the employment of incompetent, corrupt, or abusive officers. Any reforms that made this process more manageable would be warmly embraced by both civil libertarians and police leadership.
But while the need for some police reforms is apparent, the current debate has reached a fevered pitch. Otherwise responsible politicians and public figures have determined that policing as an institution is broken and systematically racist. This is a mischaracterization and it does a disservice to the thousands of dedicated police officers who serve their communities diligently every day. More ominously, it corrodes one of the key institutions that anchor the liberal democratic state. Systemic racism is a malleable concept. As praxis for the social justice movement, its obscurity is its strength because its existence does not have to be supported by specific evidence. In the current environment, systemic racism has become a pseudo-religious concept, an invisible yet malevolent force that torments the oppressed from within society’s institutions. As such, failure to declare sufficient fealty to efforts opposing it provide a ready cudgel with which the mob can denounce anyone who disputes the febrile excesses of social justice activism.
When anti-racism activists cite evidence of systemic racism, they invariably point to statistics that demonstrate marginalized people make up a disproportionate share of those involved adversely with the justice system. In Canada, this is reflected in the oft-cited statistic that Indigenous Canadians make up five percent of the population but now account for 30 percent of the federal inmate population, up significantly since the year 2000. Activists claim this proves that systemic racism not only exists, but is growing, and they identify “over-policing” as the root cause of this disparity. But are Indigenous communities really over-policed?
Over the last 20 years there has been a massive increase in awareness of Indigenous issues in Canada. Police forces throughout the country now train officers in bias management, Indigenous history and other methodologies designed to foster critical thinking and social awareness. The Canadian justice system for its part has made significant structural changes to address the high proportion of Indigenous inmates in the prison population, most notably through the Gladue principles which require judges to take an Indigenous accused’s background into account during sentencing, usually resulting in a reduced sentence. Amid this increased awareness is it logical to conclude that those who work within the justice system have become more racist?
A closer examination of the facts would suggest otherwise. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, for instance, found that on-reserve Indigenous people in Canada are charged with fewer property offences than non-Indigenous people but more violent ones.1 This suggests that, if anything, officers are more lenient when dealing with Indigenous offenders for minor property crimes and engage the criminal justice system only in the case of more serious offences in which a victim has been the subject of violence. That was certainly my experience when I worked in those communities. It’s also notable that over a third of Indigenous men in federal prisons are serving sentences for sexual offences.2 These charges are by nature complaint-generated rather than resulting from discretionary policing practices.
In reality, the underlying cause of high rates of Indigenous incarceration results from higher rates of criminality. That’s not a moral judgement. Toxic combinations of poverty, geographic isolation, family breakdown, and substance abuse underpin this pathology. Demographic differences do as well—46 percent of the Indigenous Canadian population is under the age of 25 compared to only 30 percent in the non-Indigenous population. As anyone who witnessed the surge in crime rates that occurred as the baby boomers reached adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s can attest, populations with a large cohort of young people experience much higher crime rates. None of these factors is subject to influence from law enforcement.
Beyond statistics, one only needs to follow current events to witness the differential treatment that police deliver to Indigenous communities. In February of this year, a group of Indigenous protestors barricaded the busiest rail line in Canada over a political dispute. For weeks, the country’s economy ground to a halt as police declined to enforce court injunctions and negotiated with the protestors. This was by no means an aberration. A decade ago, Indigenous protestors barricaded parts of a town in south-western Ontario for months, issuing Indigenous “passports” to local non-Indigenous residents that regulated access to and from their own homes. Media crews and members of the public were assaulted on numerous occasions while police officers stood by, rarely intervening.3 It is hard to envision any non-Indigenous group of protestors, regardless of the cause, being treated with such deference by Canadian law enforcement.
But these nuances are lost in the current reductionist environment. Journalists, traditionally skeptical gate keepers of knowledge who once prided themselves on swimming against the current of prevailing social trends, now lead the charge to storm the ramparts. Every negative interaction between a police officer and an Indigenous or other racialized person is now sensationalized as further proof that policing is brutal and racist, with some going so far as to suggest that policing should be completely abolished. Such radicalism was once the exclusive purview of rabid student unions or delusional freemen on the land. Today this madness has found its way into the opinion pages of formerly venerable liberal establishment newspapers like the New York Times.
While I’m troubled by these developments, it’s not the criticism that bothers me. After all, I’m now on the back nine of what has been a successful and satisfying career. What does scare me, more as a citizen than a police officer, is the attempt by opportunistic politicians, academics, and much of the media to completely delegitimize law enforcement as an institution. 2020 has brought a pandemic, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 1919, an economic collapse that rivals that of 1929, and social unrest reminiscent of 1968. If anything, this year has shown us how fragile the fabric that binds society can be. The coming year promises more disruption as the government largesse that has alleviated much of the economic pain caused by lockdowns begins to run out just as the United States enters what promises to be its most contentious election since the Civil War. There is a real danger that millions of people now marching in support of Black Lives Matter and snapping up copies of White Fragility will find themselves facing economic catastrophe as mortgages come due and small business owners give up. Under such circumstances, it’s not hard to envision an environment where those now professing allyship to the contemporary social justice movement revert to the more traditional human quality of tribalism, something that has existed in our nature since the first group of humans met the second group of humans on the African savannah.
If that happens, the only hope civilization has is a shared respect for the institutions that have been built up over centuries. Rule of law, responsible government, a free press that adheres to journalistic principles, and yes, professional law enforcement that enjoys broad-based public support. Without that shared understanding, we as a society are entering uncharted territory. Those on the Left who currently march shouting that “all cops are bastards” and those on the Right who believe that society’s institutions are all part of the “Deep State swamp” should heed the warning offered by Stanford historian Ian Morris who challenges Ronald Reagan’s famous quip that “the 10 most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.’” They are not. In reality, Morris says, the 10 most terrifying words in the English language are “There is no government, and I’m here to kill you.”4
The author is a senior officer with a large police service in Ontario, Canada who has spent most of his career in major crime investigation. He is currently undertaking graduate studies in management. “Mike Wilson” is an alias.
1 Robinson, Viola; Dussault, Rene; Erasmus, George; Chartrand, Paul; Meekison, Peter; Stillett, Mary; Wilson, Bertha: Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: Bridging the Cultural Divide—A Report on Aboriginal People and the Criminal Justice System in Canada, February 1996 p. 35.
2 MacGillivary, Anne, Comaskey, Brenda: Black Eyes All the Time: Intimate Violence, Aboriginal Women and the Justice System, University of Toronto Press, 1999 p. 55.
3 Blatchford, Christie, Helpless: Caledonia’s Nightmare of Fear and Anarchy and How the Law Failed All of Us, Houndhead Press, 2011.
4 Morris, Ian, War! What Is It Good For? Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2014 p. 17.
Image: Brett Morrison (Flickr).