Police should be rewarded for community trust, not arrests, says expert
New incentives and better training are needed to change relationships with racialized communities
In 2016 and in 2018, Calgary had more officer-involved shootings than any other city in Canada. Five of them were fatal. The CBC Docs POV film Above the Law looks at the stories of three individuals who appear to have been the victims of excessive force by Calgary police.
One of them is Godfred Addai-Nyamekye. In December 2013, the then 26-year-old student and immigrant from Ghana, was detained late at night by two police officers who maintain he was intoxicated — a claim Addai-Nyamekye refutes. They put him in a police vehicle and drove him to an isolated location, abandoning him in the cold wearing only a tracksuit and sneakers.
When he called 911 for help, another officer arrived and proceeded to beat and Taser him. Addai-Nyamekye was later charged with having assaulted the officer but was acquitted, in no small part because a Calgary police helicopter captured the violent arrest on video.
In 2018, the Calgary Police Service released an independent review on the use of force by Calgary police containing 65 recommendations pertaining to officer recruitment, training, use of force and provincial oversight.
Harpreet Aulakh is an associate professor in economics, justice and policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary who studies diversity issues in the criminal justice system. Here, she discusses how policing needs to change in Canada to address issues pertaining to systemic racism and use of force.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is now a good time to discuss changes in policing?
This is the perfect time to have the conversation around addressing the use of force, around systemic racism. These events have exploded among racialized communities and police forces around the Western world.
It cannot just be a matter of choice, but a matter of necessity for the police departments to address these issues because positive relations between community members and police are essential for safer communities.
What are some of the problems with policing right now?
It has a lot to do with our racist history, our racist past. The history of our country was based on racism, including the foundations of policing in Canada.
The whole philosophy around policing strategies needs to change because the traditional practices have damaged the police–community relationship. These policies are enforced in low-income and high-crime neighbourhoods, which are more likely to be inhabited by ethnic minorities.
Traditional policing strategies provide incentives for the officers and are designed to reward officers for the number of stops conducted, arrests made, [the] number of civilian contact cards completed. And these interactions increase the negative contact with the residents.
Even a very non-violent, non-confrontational interaction with the police officer and a racial minority member could be perceived under the anxiety that, "Am I being singled out?" Even if the right police officer is being unbiased, he would have that anxiousness in mind, "Will I be judged a racist?" These tensions need to be resolved.
What changes need to be made to policing?
If we want to change the whole policing strategy, we need to change it in practical ways. The officer should be aligned with the cause of increasing trust and positive engagement with the community.
For example, there should be incentives for how many young offenders were diverted away from the justice system. Or whether the police officers engage with the community members and how many positive, constructive relationships are built. The number of times they were able to resolve a situation without an arrest. Those things should be built into policing itself.
What new skills do officers need to make these changes?
There needs to be a harsh look at all the major branches of the department right from [the start in terms of] education criteria, skills requirements, [recruits'] age and experience.
In many countries in Europe, they look for at least an undergraduate degree. Education is important for applicants in understanding how society works. Think about [the fact that] you can be in the police force just after grade 12. How much experience do you have?
We need to look at the qualifications of the recruits, our skill requirements, our training programs. There should be a mandatory communications skills training program, and year after year, [officers] should be developing their skill sets.
If we expect to not use force or use force less — and also increase the use of verbal communication [in] resolving the situation — then we need to equip them with those skills.
Everything should be on the table for open discussion. This is the time to set the tone for job culture in the department.
Are there any concrete examples of police departments that have successfully changed their relationship with their community?
There is a small police department in California, Stockton PD. What they do is they involve community members in some of their training. They talk about the local history of police with racialized members of the community, and they give local incidents of police brutality from the community perspective.
When do you think change will happen?
I want to be hopeful. This is the perfect time. If we get good command and leadership in different levels of the police departments, I think they have a chance. Change is slow, but it has to happen.
Watch Above the Law.