Hamilton police service: quick fixes or genuine reform?

Wade Poziomka a human rights lawyer in Hamilton and past chair of the Ontario Bar Association’s Constitutional, Civil Liberties and Human Rights Section Executive says Hamilton police Chief has a chance to leave a legacy that would result in meaningful systemic change. But will he?

'The problem... is not ‘a few bad apples’, but rather systemic discrimination'

A Hamilton human rights lawyer is calling on the Hamilton Police Service to make lasting and significant reforms. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Wade Poziomka  a human rights lawyer in Hamilton Ontario. He is the Past Chair of the Ontario Bar Association's Constitutional, Civil Liberties and Human Rights Section Executive and 1st Vice-President of ARCH Disability Law Centre's Board of Directors. These views are his own, and not that of Ross & McBride LLP, where he practices as a partner, or any other organization. 

Police officers have a very difficult and stressful job. They serve the public day in and day out, and through the course of their duties they encounter difficult situations where their safety may be in jeopardy or they may be exposed to horrific tragedies.

Like all first responders, research is showing us the impact these traumatic situations have on individuals. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnoses are becoming more commonplace.

Frequent exposure to these conditions, and to public criticism, can lead to a closed, close-knit culture with an 'us versus them' mentality. And a cycle develops – police are increasingly criticized and become increasingly insular. 

I do not believe for a moment that individuals become police officers so they can exert authority over others or have "power".

Rather, I believe that people pursue a policing career because they genuinely want to help their fellow citizens and ensure our communities are safe for everyone. Many police officers in Hamilton are reasonable, decent and caring people.

I have heard it said that 'a few bad apples' are the problem and give the entire force a bad name. It is here where I disagree. The problem with the Hamilton police force is not 'a few bad apples', but rather systemic discrimination that is a part of the structures of the service itself. Within this structure, individual police officers are limited in the good they can do, notwithstanding what may be the best of intentions. 

Resisting reform

Systemic discrimination is a pattern of behaviour, policies or practices that are part of the structures of an organization that create disadvantage for certain groups. Systemic discrimination is hard to identify, and as a result leads some to dismiss it as a hocus pocus concept.

A lack of awareness, combined with the 'us versus them' mentality can lead the leadership within police services to dismiss calls for reform as 'anti-police' and fail to truly understand the systemic issues that exist. Police become increasingly insular and stick together, and systemic reform is viewed as an unrealistic slogan of the 'anti-police' folks. 

But systemic discrimination can be detected and addressed. There are three primary considerations to be mindful of when looking at systemic discrimination: 

1. Numerical Data – Statistics can show that individuals are not being treated equally based on a ground protected from discrimination (like race, addiction, etc). Numbers can also show us if groups are disproportionately represented within the service itself, and particularly in positions of leadership. 

2. Policies and Practices – The use of "informal" or "discretionary" policies and practices that leave more room for subjective-conclusions open the door to biased decision-making. Policies and practices should be designed in a manner keep the fact that bias exists and can influence our decisions at the forefront. Scenarios and group work to identify when bias may creep into decision-making can help us check our decisions. There is an excellent tool called Diversity and Inclusion Learning Snippets, developed by social psychologists and learning experts that is based on proven science to reduce biased decision-making, including in policing.

3. Organizational Culture – Police services can develop a culture which can alienate and marginalize groups. It is important that culture be examined, looking closely at ties to marginalized groups, increasing connections to those groups, and removing barriers from their participation or positive interaction with police. 

Recently, Hamilton police Chief Eric Girt said he was open to having other agencies in a position to do work related to mental health calls and addictions take that on, but that police should be present for "life-threatening" situations.

He added that he wants more resources toward crisis intervention training and de-escalation, which would avoid the use of force, stating that these situations are "often a medical emergency, not necessarily a criminal one."

Within this context, Chief Girt's comments are both welcome and short-sighted.

While there are certainly community organizations in Hamilton who can step up to deal with issues around mental health and addiction, and I am not suggesting the police should not work with and partner with these organizations, the police should not offload the obligation to be properly trained to deal with Hamiltonians in a respectful and professional manner.

More importantly, they should not implement a few positive initiatives to the detriment of addressing the systemic issues within the structure of the service. 

Humanity in the face of trauma 

Police officers are often the first to respond to Hamiltonians experiencing the lowest point in their lives – whether that is through the loss of a loved one, an overdose from narcotics, or a challenge with mental health or suicide. Police officers want to help – they need be able to work within a system that is free from issues of systemic discrimination.

They need the support, training and most importantly, work environment, to maintain their humanity in the face of frequent trauma. More importantly, it will allow others in the community to maintain their dignity when encountering police, regardless of the colour of their skin. 

When this happens, there will be an improvement in relations between the police and the community. When systemic issues exist, it causes distrust between certain groups and police, which then seemingly supports what police typically ask for – more funding and more police officers. Instead of focusing on increased funding, I would encourage the Hamilton Police Service to focus on meaningful reform and efforts to address issues of systemic discrimination.

This will lead to a change in the relationship between groups who are frequently marginalized and local police. This could be chief Girt's legacy in the Hamilton Police Service, not a few well-intentioned initiatives that do not further meaningful systemic change. 

I have purposely not commented on funding/de-funding as I simply don't have space. Systemic reform needs to happen separate and apart from whether the police have their funding reduced or not. It should not be a catalyst for calls for increased funding however. 



Wade Poziomka

Human rights lawyer

Wade Poziomka is a human rights lawyer in Hamilton, Ont. and the past chair of the Ontario Bar Association’s Constitutional, Civil Liberties and Human Rights Section Executive. These views are his own, and not that of Ross & McBride LLP, where he practices as a partner, or any other organization.