Police need to show up where it matters most

The following is the fourth installment in a series of posts on Racism and Aboriginal People. I will be wrapping it up with some final thoughts on the weekend.

It’s pretty hard for a nation built on the overthrow and oppression of a people to not have racism ingrained in its institutions. And, besides government, what institution would have racism more deeply embedded than the police, whose job was to ensure the conquered understood their place and stayed there?

Obviously, the current role of the RCMP has changed but Aboriginal people, with all of our problems, make for an easy target, much easier than the rich and influential, the guys they golf with and whose homes their kids sleep over at. I imagine Aboriginal people are somewhat of a nuisance to police, who too often have to break up their parties and pick them up off the streets.

I know the RCMP pretty well. I had several run-ins with them in my youth. I also worked with them a lot over the last 20 years, first as a program director at the Friendship House and, then, as a recreation director in the village of Lax Kw’alaams. As you might guess, my relationship with them was much different and mostly unpleasant in my early years. I got into my share of trouble as a kid. I shoplifted, I was a vandal, I was mouthy. I got myself into situations that invited police intervention.

I think when we discuss police using excessive force, it’s important to start there, with the assumption that there was a good reason for the police to be engaging with or arresting someone. By starting with “the guy was no angel” reason, it dispenses with the apologist’s lines, like “the dude was shoplifting” or “he called the cop a pig and flipped him the bird” or, in the case of George Floyd, “he was using counterfeit money” and “he was high.” All of those are bad behavior or crimes but very thin reasoning for excessive force.

Yes, someone suspected of a crime needs to be questioned and, when applicable, brought in. That’s it. If a suspect asks questions, they have every right to. Whatever the charge they are facing, it must be explained. That’s not “mouthing off.” Every public service job, at all levels, understands and is trained for belligerent people and has standard tactics for dealing with them.

Even when a person physically resists or throws a punch, there are stop points. You have them subdued and under control? Ask them if they’re in distress, don’t inflict further pain. And just because someone throws a punch doesn’t mean it is now a fight, officially called, like in the schoolyard, and you’re allowed to get some shots in and ad some flourish while he’s down.

I always felt Aboriginal people were given special attention by the RCMP. Cops often pulled over to ask me and my Aboriginal friends what we were doing when we were just walking down the street. We knew the answer they were looking for, so we always said we were on our way home.

When I was in my teens, there was one constable in town who was well known for his feelings towards Aboriginal people. He wasn’t alone but he was the most brazen about it. One night, I got caught drinking in the bushes by the Savoy Hotel. I was with a couple of buddies and this particular constable singled me out because I was challenging their physical handling of us. They weren’t striking us, but they were grabbing us and shaking us, and I made the mistake of saying they couldn’t do that. The notorious constable tossed me into the back seat of his vehicle.

I thought I was being brought to the police station, that maybe he was going to throw me into a cell to scare me. But instead of taking me to the station, he took me down a secluded road to a small clearing, with no residences nearby, and told me to get out. When I stepped out, he pushed me away from the car, glared at me and said that “I could beat the shit out of you right here and now, and no one would care.” I was scared. He was a cop and a big man. I thought I could actually be killed because all it takes is a good crack from one of those big flashlights or a good boot to the head. I didn’t talk back and, thankfully, scare me was all he wanted to do that night. I knew of others who had not been so lucky.

Another time, I was at a party that had gotten out of hand and the police came to break it up. Again, the question is not if they had legitimate cause; it’s how they went about it. They stormed the house, at which I was a guest and invited to spend the night. I was sitting on the couch, posing no threat, when they hauled me up and cuffed me. They kept yelling at me to quit resisting, even though I wasn’t. How could I in that position? My hands were behind my back and I was being dragged by my elbows.

They kept pulling my elbows up so hard as they dragged me that I thought my shoulders were going to pop out. When we got to the police suburban, they stopped to deliberately ram my face into the bumper for chuckles before tossing me into the vehicle. I now have a bridge where my original two front teeth used to be.

For those of you who were anticipating some kind of amazing, revelatory solution to the police problem, I’m afraid I will disappoint you. I don’t think you can virtually eliminate the police, as some people have suggested. Rather than de-fund, I’d prefer to see us de-emphasize certain things and re-direct some money and resources.

We could involve more social workers, to react to issues that cops are not adequately trained for and may actually escalate simply by their presence. There are many calls police get that don’t require guns or a presence that is aggressive, whether real or perceived.

Training is crucial. Take advantage of those constables that “get it,” that have made in-roads, and have them teach others, using their experiences. I have had the pleasure of working with several RCMP members who became part of the Aboriginal community and were always warmly greeted. They made an effort, not just when in uniform but also on their off days, to show true interest about who we are.

Prince Rupert once had a pair of constables who patrolled on bicycles, who were very connected to our Aboriginal youth. They regularly dropped into the youth centre and I often saw them chatting with youth on the street. The kids ran to them when they saw them. Like too many success stories, the program was de-funded and dropped for no apparent reason.

It bears repeating: knowing people is half the battle. How many times have you had your impression of someone changed merely by having a lengthy conversation with him/her? It’s the same with a group of people. Watching how they do things, why they do things, what is important to them, builds empathy and that erodes bigotry.

So, while shifting some response duties over to social workers could be a part of the solution, let’s try better education and understanding with the RCMP – and not the pamphlet and weekend course variety but in person, over a long period of time, where they can not only learn but participate.

And put them back on bikes, back on the street again, visiting Aboriginal people wherever they are so that, one day, our meetings with them will be more about “hey, what’s up?” instead of shit, what did I do?

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