Copping it Out

Racialized Policing

Aboriginal People’s Encounters with the Police

by Elizabeth Comack  

In her study of racism in Canadian policing, Elizabeth Comack, a sociologist at the University of Manitoba, describes in detail this and other investigations, commissions and inquiries into police racism. In some instances these deal with the apparent mistreatment by police of racial minorities as a collective (as in the case of blacks in Toronto and aboriginal people in Saskatchewan and in Winnipeg’s inner-city communities). In many instances they deal with more specific police incidents such as the police killing of Matthew Dumas and J.J. Harper and the freezing deaths of Stonechild and three other aboriginal men in the custody of Saskatoon Police Services. Comack’s description of these instances, the police investigations that followed them and the judicial inquiries that were sometimes called is extensive. In fact, of the 230 pages of text in Racialized Policing, more than 180 of them are devoted to the details of incidents and the investigations that followed. It is hard to know if this is a criticism. To label these descriptions tedious is unfeeling (although the long methodological battles over proving, or disproving, racial profiling is definitely tedious). To consider the descriptions unilluminating is to ignore the moral and normative lessons of narrative. They are, however, presented by Comack with scant social analysis, as if they disclose their own significance.

But do they? The stories of death and denial of justice in police contacts with visible minorities present a staggering contrast with those enjoying white privilege. However, one would most certainly get an argument about this from members of the white underclass. And this raises the crucial question of the real drivers of the differing treatment of categories of persons by the police. The hopelessly naive view would be that good and bad persons–or, in the specific context of policing, offenders and non-offenders–get appropriately different treatment. It is hardly worth debating that privileged offenders are treated with more respect and with closer attention to the requirements of fair process than are non-offenders from disliked and disrespected minority communities.

The analytic tension that is worth exploring is whether Canadian policing’s callousness and brutality to some classes–blacks, aboriginals, sex trade workers and the drug dependent–is a matter of an internally constructed police culture of active disrespect for these groups or whether it arises exogenously from a broader social devaluing of the worth of some people. Comack has her view on this issue and it follows that of Justice Wright: it is that deep community division produces police racism.

For Comack, the purpose behind the social instrument of policing is the reproduction of order. At one level this is a truism. Insofar as social order is defined by the proscriptions of criminal law, police do, indeed, attempt to replicate criminal law’s notions of a well-ordered society. But she makes a deeper point. Social order is not just a matter of defining crimes; it is also about establishing social values. It is not just based on offences; it is conforming to social expectations. It is not just avoiding convictable deviance; it is living by conventions of thought and action. Under this sociological view of order, threats to it arise through mere social fear of difference, especially differences over values–values of purity, endeavour, relationships, economic value, dress and so forth. The sheer fact of difference in Canada’s aboriginal population–a difference that, perhaps, we too easily label as social dysfunction–licenses a strong popular disregard for the place and contribution of that population. According to Comack, this is the beginning (and, possibly, the end) of police indifference to the humanity, the needs and the entitlements of aboriginal people, whether or not they are actually offenders.

Comack buttresses her thesis of endemic Canadian disrespect for aboriginal peoples through reference to two other sources of this condition. First, she includes a history of the colonialist history of European settlement. Although her history is relatively extensive, it is too brief, too monolithic, to capture the nuances of the vacillations in this relationship between the periods of trust and mutual covenant and the simply disastrous policies grounded in cultural superiority, domination, destruction and, at its lowest point in the 20th century, eradication. But her conclusion is correct. Colonialism can destroy the cultural, social and political integrity of peoples and, thus, render impossible the desired conditions of mutual support, mutual respect and reconciliation.

Comack also points out the social conditions that many aboriginal people must endure: poor housing, poor schooling, exclusion from socially valued roles, poor health and poor health care, poor personal security and so on. These conditions should evoke compassion and a determination to extend care and mercy. In fact, they trigger blame, resistance to social investment and very low respect. Comack’s view is that it is not surprising if police fail to find a way to act generously and constructively in the face of these strongly negative social attitudes.

The irony of this thesis, then, is that police forces are not the engines of Canadian racism. They certainly do not confront and overcome it and, indeed, they act as its most effective carrier. But that racism is not a police construct; it is a condition of Canadian aboriginal/non-aboriginal relations that they reflect and reproduce–mere sperm and eggs to our country’s misguided and destructive parenthood.

However, one should not leave the topic of this book without returning to the question of whether there can be any nurturing of human excellence in Canadian policing. False optimism about progressivism in Canadian policing would be wrong if it were to be used to deny the concerns raised by Comack in her book. Yet her account is partial. In the past 20 years, there has been an explosion of developments designed to improve justice for distinct minorities, particularly for aboriginal communities. Community policing, police liaison in schools with large aboriginal student bodies, aboriginal police forces, special First Nations courts, special rules for sentencing, the development of community justice responses to offending, diversion programs, development of First Nations laws, tripartite agencies for responding to the social causes of disorder and so forth have become a major part of doing criminal justice in Canada. These reflect a determination to transform the criminal justice system from being criminogenic in aboriginal communities to helping construct healthy and well-functioning communities. While these developments have not produced the dividend of equality in criminal justice experience, it is discouraging to the reformers throughout the system if the treatment of racism in Canadian criminal justice ignores these innovations, efforts and hopes. Canada is not always a pretty society, and Comack is right to point out one of the ways that this true, but its vine has its trees.

— John D. Whyte, Literary Review of Canada, July/August 2012



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