New 'diversity' cruiser for Waterloo regional police gets mixed reviews

The Waterloo Regional Police Service has launched a cruiser with new artwork meant to highlight diversity in the community. But there has been mixed reactions to the cruiser from the community with some who say it does little to address systemic racism.

Idea is to spark engagement but one anti-racism advocate calls move 'tone deaf'

The Waterloo Regional Police Service has launched a new program where artwork will be added to cruisers to reflect people who live in the community. The first cruiser in a series of four was launched this week and received mixed reviews from some in the community. (Mark Araujo / Waterloo Regional Police)

A new police cruiser featuring artwork that "aims to capture the spirit of Canadian newcomers" is getting mixed reviews from some in the community.

The Waterloo Regional Police Service announced the first vehicle to have the diversity-focused community cruiser design earlier this week.

The service said the project is led by its equity, inclusion and diversity unit as a way to highlight diversity in the community.

The artwork "aims to capture the spirit of Canadian newcomers, as well as African, Caribbean, South Asian, and Arabic cultures," police said in a release. Along with the artwork, there is a QR code people can scan to learn more about the project.

There are three more cruisers expected to get the diversity artwork designs this year.

Police Chief Bryan Larkin said he hopes the cruiser sparks conversations in the community.

"When a police cruiser rolls into a neighborhood, whether it's on patrol or whether it's there for a service call, it often attracts attention, both positive and negative attention. And we view this as an opportunity that, when we are out in the community, we engage," Larkin said during an interview on CBC K-W's The Morning Edition with host Craig Norris.

"They would see this mural on the back of the car and individuals could say, look, tell me about this. What is this about?"

'It's so tone deaf'

But the cruiser design is being criticized by some who say it does nothing to address concerns of racism in the community and on the police service itself.

Amy Smoke is Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan from the Six Nations of the Grand River and a student at the University of Waterloo where she also works as the Indigenous events co-ordinator for the Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre.

"It's so tone deaf," Smoke said in an interview. "I thought it was extremely poor judgment, poor taste."

Smoke, who also sits on the region's anti-racism working group, questioned who had been consulted on the design. She said the working group was unaware of the cruiser designs.

Police cruiser 7537 is the first in the Waterloo Regional Police Service's 'diversity design series.' The artwork on it is meant to capture 'the spirit of Canadian newcomers and African, Caribbean, South Asian and Arabic cultures,' the police services says on its website. (Mark Araujo / Waterloo Regional Police)

"I'm shocked and appalled that this went through various, different approvals," she said.

Smoke noted the region cut costs in its most recent budget, including for child care centres, while the police budget increased. She questioned that.

"They should put their money in community driven initiative, Black-led, Indigenous-led community initiatives," she said.

'The optics are bad'

On Twitter, Waterloo Coun. Jen Vasic expressed her thoughts on the project. Earlier this year, Vasic brought forward a motion earlier this year that was supported by city council asking the region to work with police to reallocate some of the police budget

"Regardless of how much sense this might have made at decision-making tables (representation, supporting local artists, community safety plans) — and I know there is much nuance to municipal decisions now that I've seen them up front — the optics are bad and the impact is worse," Vasic tweeted.

Indigenous educator Lori Campbell tweeted, "I fail to see how decals on a police cruiser will assist in dismantling systemic racism in policing."

Teneile Warren, who is a member of the African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) Network of Waterloo Region, questioned on Twitter why Waterloo regional police announced the design on the first day of Derek Chauvin's trial in Minneapolis. Chauvin is the former police officer accused of killing George Floyd.

"Police services across Ontario have done this same white-comfort centering paint and have been called out," Warren tweeted.

Baby steps, not end goal

Fauzia Mazhar, who is with the K-W Coalition of Muslim Woman, said she knows the idea comes from the police service's equity, inclusion and diversity committee and so didn't want to dismiss the work they've done.

"They probably took a lot of time and they thought about it. And I'm sure that they consulted with other people. And they came up with an idea," she said. "I truly believe that what they're doing is going to be able to bring some positive changes for people to be able to see them represented on a police cruiser."

Mazhar says she expects more work to be done going forward to make significant and real change.

"We have to appreciate the work that is happening as long as ... we don't stop at that baby step and think that this was the destination that we wanted to reach," she said.

"We have to keep the actual problems and challenges in mind. And definitely we can celebrate all of these baby steps. But if they stop us from reaching where we need to be, where we needed to be yesterday, then of course, it's not helpful at all."

One side of the vehicle shows a woman wearing a Gele (traditional Nigerian head wrap), a Sikh man, and a Muslim man and woman. (Mark Araujo / Waterloo Regional Police)

'Appreciate' feedback

Larkin said the service appreciates the community's feedback.

"I understand that people may not support ... the initiative. They may think it's a waste of money, but totally understand and appreciate all that feedback," he said.

"This will not solve and fix the complex issues of racism in our society. It will not fix and actually address systemic issues and systemic bias and discrimination within policing. But I do believe that it's another step on the path forward," Larkin added.

"This is our members ... driving initiatives and change led by our equity and inclusion team. And so I support them. This is their idea. This is their concept. And as the chief, you know, I want to work with them to look at how we make differences."

Listen to the full segment from The Morning Edition:

What's on the cruiser?

The police service says the art work on the cruiser shows a woman wearing a Gele (traditional Nigerian head wrap), a Sikh man, and a Muslim man and woman. 

There is also a person holding a Canadian flag and a child learning about Canada.

"Prominently featured is also the lion and the African baobab tree. The lion is the emblem for royalty, strength, pride, wisdom, authority, courage and protection. The majestic baobab tree is an icon of the African continent and lies at the heart of many traditional African remedies and faith-based practices," the police service's website says.

There are also several other subtle religious and African Adinkra symbols.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.



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