Police must stop tolerating abusive behaviour

George Floyd, killed by Minneapolis police on 25 May 2020

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

There has been much discussion lately about the question of systemic racism – especially where police forces are concerned. In the United States attention has been focussed primarily on Blacks, especially after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis policemen Derek Chauvin sparked protests worldwide. Police relations with Blacks in Canada are also problematic, but here the most glaring statistics relate to Indigenous people. Here are some facts for both countries.

In the United States:

  • Racial Profiling: Blacks are more likely to be stopped by police than Whites. A 2019 study of nearly 100 million traffic stops from around the country concluded that, on average, black drivers are 20% more likely to get pulled over than white drivers.
  • Incarceration: Black Americans remain far more likely than their Hispanic and White counterparts to be in prison. At the end of 2018 there were 1,501 Black prisoners for every 100,000 Black adults. That’s nearly twice the rate among Hispanics (797 per 100,000) and more than five times the rate among Whites (268 per 100,000). Black men are especially likely to be imprisoned. There were 2,272 inmates per 100,000 Black men in 2018, compared with 1,018 inmates per 100,000 Hispanic men and 392 inmates per 100,000 White men.
  • Deaths at the hand of police: According to a 2018 Study conducted by the University of California, the highest proportion of those killed was among Native Americans, who were killed by police at a rate of 7.8 per one million people. African-Americans died at the hands of police at a rate of 7.2 per million, while Whites are killed at a rate of 2.9 per million.

In Canada:

  • Racial Profiling: Indigenous people are 10 times more likely to be stopped and checked by police in Edmonton than non-Indigenous residents. An analysis of 10,000 arrests in Toronto showed that Blacks were 50% more likely to be taken to a police station for processing after arrest, and 100% more likely to be held overnight than were Whites, even taking into account criminal history and age. According to a study by the Université du Québec à Montréal which examined data from 2014-2017, Indigenous women are among the most targeted by the police department’s officers, according to the report, which found they were 11 times more likely to be stopped than White women. The report also found that Black and Indigenous people are four to five times more likely to be subjected to street checks by police officers in Montreal. People of Arab descent are twice as likely to be stopped than White people. However, young Arabs between 15 and 24 years of age are four times more likely to be stopped by police.
  • Incarceration: Across the country, Indigenous adults represent only three per cent of Canadians, but account for 30 per cent of the inmate population in 2020 — an all-time high, according to the Office of the Correctional Investigator. Indigenous women represent 42 per cent of female inmates.
  • Deaths at the hands of police: An Indigenous person in Canada is more than 10 times more likely to have been shot and killed by a police officer in Canada since 2017 than a White person in Canada. A recent CTV News analysis revealed that of the 66 people shot and killed by police in that timeframe for whom race or heritage could be identified, 25 were Indigenous. That’s nearly 40 per cent of the total. Adjusted for population based on 2016 census data, it means 1.5 out of every 100,000 Indigenous Canadians have been shot and killed by police since 2017, versus 0.13 out of every 100,000 White Canadians. In Winnipeg, 11 out of 19 people killed by police from 2000 to 2017 were Indigenous.

There has been a special focus on this particular problem recently following two shootings of Indigenous people (Rodney Levi and Chantel Moore) by New Brunswick RCMP in a little over a week. Among some other cases:

Dozens of Indigenous women in Val d’Or, Que. reported sexual and physical abuse by provincial police officers. Out of 54 complaints, one retired police officer was criminally charged, and he pleaded guilty to a single count of sexual assault.

Debralee ChrisJohn died in police custody in London, Ont. from a heart attack following a methamphetamine overdose. An Ontario Provincial Police officer was convicted of criminal negligence causing death because he failed to call in a medical emergency despite signs she was in distress. He didn’t take any action until she was found unconscious in the cell.

Apologists for the police say that such actions are the work of “bad apples”. True enough. But if one is to use the analogy of bad apples, let us point out that when you find bad apples in a barrel, you remove them. Otherwise, the whole barrel rots. And that is the problem here. Police forces both in Canada and the United States are often reluctant to remove these apples. Thus, the whole barrel begins to rot. Take the case of Derek Chauvin. Chauvin had 18 complaints on his official record, two of which ended in discipline from the department, including official letters of reprimand. He had been involved in three police shootings, one of which was fatal. According to the former owner of El Nuevo Rodeo, a Latin nightclub, where Chauvin moonlighted as a security guard, he sometimes used overaggressive tactics when dealing with black clientele, responding to fights by spraying the crowd with mace instead of dealing with those who were fighting. Why was he still on the force? Why had he not been removed? With such a record, he should have been. And had he been, there would be no killing of George Floyd and all the rioting, looting and violence that followed.

If one doesn’t want to use the term systemic racism, then what has to be acknowledged is a systemic tolerance of racists and abusive behaviour. Police are reluctant to discipline their own members. On the contrary, they are more likely to circle the wagons whenever one of theirs is accused of abusive behaviour. Take the example of the 57 members of the Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team, who resigned from the unit after two officers who were suspended without pay for shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground at a protest, causing him to be seriously injured. What this fundamentally means is that the police place themselves and their institution above the laws they are supposed to enforce.

Protestors have called for the defunding of police forces. That’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face. If police are defunded, who’s going to go after the criminals? Who’s going to enforce the law?

But the threat to defund can be used as a lever to get the police to clean up their own act. And that is the optimum solution. But, as recent events have shown, the police, to date, have been incapable of policing themselves. Maybe all the protests may lead to some positive changes. Hopefully, that will be the case. Because if the police fail to police themselves, then civilian authorities will have to move in and make them do so.