British Columbia

Why calling the police to stop a racist attack can be a tough call

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, racist incidents targeting Asian Canadians have been a troubling trend. Bystanders can and should do something to intervene, but calling the police to stop a racist attack may not be welcomed by the victim.

Police can be part of the problem rather than the solution, say members of visible minority groups

Calling police when you witness a racist attack may seem like the right thing to do, but according to many people of colour, it isn't welcome, and some say it could even make the situation more threatening for the victim. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

On Wednesday, CBC News published a story about what bystanders could do to help stop attacks against Asian Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic. It included several ways someone could take action, depending on the situation.

The first option on the list was to call the police.

That suggestion, along with its place at the top of the list drew a swift and significant reaction on Twitter, with a post from Vicky Mochama, a Toronto-based freelance writer, editor and podcast host, going viral.

She said calling police is not an option that many people in racialized communities would pick.

Many others expressed the same sentiment: For people in many minority communities, police are perceived as unhelpful in addressing racist attacks, untrustworthy, or worse, an added threat.

The original story has since been modified to better reflect that experience, with an editor's note addressing the changes.

For Mochama, the fact her tweet quickly got thousands of retweets didn't come as a surprise.

"I think it's maybe based on my work, but the idea of the police as a solution for racism — I think people found it accurately fairly laughable," she said.

Mochama said there is value to an article that helps people intervene in racist incidents, but she was horrified to see the prominent piece of advice — calling police.

"That is not an action that is really doable or works as a suggestion for black people, I think puts them in more danger," she said.

Cicely Blain agrees. She's a diversity and inclusion consultant and activist in Vancouver. She said if she were witnessing a racist incident, she would not think to call police.

"Knowing the experiences that I and my community and people who look like me have had with police, it's not something that I feel safe doing," said Blain.

She said if you don't feel comfortable directly confronting the attacker, you can turn your attention to the victim and try to find ways to directly support them, like asking if they're OK, or helping them get away from the situation.

Cicely Blain is an activist and diversity and inclusion consultant in Vancouver. (Alex Lamic CBC News)

She said if things seem to be really getting out of control, and actions like alerting a bus driver or other non-police figure aren't possible, police could be seen as a last resort. But even in that situation, Blain suggests trying to get the victim's consent first.

"I can't speak on behalf of everybody, but I feel like the black community, specifically, has always been targeted by the police and law enforcement and structural racism," she said.

"Even if it's not happening in this city, still — like literally daily — we're receiving stories from around the world and around Canada of black folks being hurt or even killed by the very people who are supposed to protect us," said Blain.

'Many people of colour simply do not feel safe calling the police'

While black communities in North America may be particularly suspicious of police, it's certainly a sentiment found in degrees in other minority communities.

Jeska Slater is the Indigenous social innovation coordinator for Skookum Lab, an organization that, among other things, works on the issue of systemic racism.

"Many people of colour simply do not feel safe calling the police. This might be due to previous interactions, or things that they've heard," said Slater.

She said she's white-passing, with a Cree mother and English father, but she's experienced discrimination as soon as the police have learned of her heritage. And she can list several incidents in which Indigenous friends have been the victims of racism, including physical attacks, and found the interaction with police quite negative.

Protesters demonstrate outside a Vancouver Bank of Montreal branch in January after Vancouver police officers handcuffed a 12-year-old girl and her grandfather. The two had been at the bank to open a savings account. (CBC/Martin Diotte)

She said experiences range from feeling as though the issue was not being taken seriously, to police behaviour adding to the trauma of an incident.

"I think the issue about attacks and how RCMP address these attacks is part of a much bigger issue that has a very problematic history in Canada," said Slater.

A number of anti-Chinese attacks have taken place in Vancouver. Adam Palmer, the Vancouver police chief was asked on Thursday about the mistrust victims of hate crimes have in police, and the reluctance to report.

"People being apprehensive to come to the police, some people are coming here from other parts of the world and in many parts of the world the police probably aren't trustworthy. They're militarized — it's probably more dangerous to call the police than not," said Palmer.

"We understand those nuances," he said, adding that VPD policy is not to look at the immigration status of anyone who is the victim, witness or who's reporting crime.

Palmer said the VPD has been doing significant outreach in the Chinese community, since the increase of racist incidents.

Trying to fix the mistrust

Baltej Singh Dhillon has a unique perspective on the issue of racism and police. Dhillon retired last year from the RCMP after a long career, in which he served as the first Mountie to wear a turban, overcoming challenging obstacles to get his police career started and rising to the rank of inspector.

Dhillon experienced racism from the communities he policed and the officers working alongside him.

He said even he wasn't surprised to see the backlash to the advice of calling police.

"I think when it comes to trust and building trust with our community — and having reciprocal trust from the community, including law enforcement — is always a work in progress," said Dhillon. "We're not there yet. I know that that sentiment of mistrust does exist."

Baltej Dhillon, retired RCMP inspector, says all hate crimes should be forwarded to Crown counsel, leaving it to them to determine whether charges will go forward. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

He said Canada may be doing better than other jurisdictions when it comes to how police address racism, but the country has a long history of racist experiences.

Dhillon recently submitted a recommendation to Ravi Kahlon, MLA for Delta North and the B.C. government's lead on anti-racism and human rights, who has been touring the province to get feedback on how to address racism.

Dhillon has asked that all potential hate crimes be flagged, fully investigated and forwarded to Crown counsel for them to decide if charges should be laid.

He said if his recommendation is adopted as the standard, it could help give victims of racist attacks confidence in the justice system and work to repair the mistrust minority communities have in the police that are supposed to serve them.

According to Slater, change can't come fast enough — it's long overdue.

"You have a whole community that are afraid to call you. That's something that needs to be addressed," she said of police.

About the Author

Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.