'Securitization' of Canadian policing leads to lack of accountability

A community afflicted by crime calls for solutions that include sound partnerships with local police based on mutual trust. This can't happen if the community in question is framed by a national security agenda that perceives it as the enemy, Steven Zhou writes.

Police must establish trust with communities afflicted by crime, Steven Zhou says - not see them as the enemy

A Black Lives Matter in Toronto protests the 2015 shooting deaths of Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old man killed in Toronto, and Jermaine Carby, a 33-year-old man killed in Brampton, Ont.

The recent shooting of Sudanese worker Andrew Loku by a police officer in the Greater Toronto Area sparked a prolonged demonstration in downtown Toronto by members and supporters of the city's Black Lives Matter coalition. An encampment, called Tent City by the protestors, was set up in front of the Toronto police headquarters on March 20, and participants even clashed with officers who tore down several tents near the beginning of the demonstration.

The encampment finally ended earlier this week as protesters marched to nearby Queen's Park to confront Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who promised the organizers a meeting that "may be" open to the public. The coalition is also demanding, within a 300-hour window, to meet with Toronto Mayor John Tory and Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders in open, public meetings.

This is just one of the most recent episodes in a prolonged call by black communities across North America for an end to what they say is unjustified police violence. The BLM movement has taken off at a time when policing and public safety in Canada have become more and more integrated into a national security framework that emphasizes militarization and "securitization" as the main solutions to criminality and terrorism.

Rising police numbers, declining crime

A 2014 report published by the Fraser Institute shows that despite significant crime reduction from 2001 to 2012, the number of employed police officers rose by 21.8 per cent. The study uses Statistics Canada numbers, which show that Manitoba and Saskatchewan have the highest number of police officers per capita. All provinces and territories, except for Yukon, saw an increase in the number of officers per 100,000 people between 2001 and 2013. The number of criminal code incidents in Canada, meanwhile, dropped from 2.4 million to two million during the same period.

In Toronto, the number of police officers per 100,000 people actually declined five per cent from 2001 to 2012, while crime in the city dropped 41 per cent. The lead researcher on the study, Livio Di Matteo, noted the Toronto numbers demonstrate how more cops don't always mean less crime. These trends were not so stark in the days before 9/11, when government deficits and rising police costs combined to slow government investment in policing. But since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S., Canadian policing has become more and more integrated into a national security strategy that has, among other things, increased national investment in and expansion of policing powers in a way that undermines public accountability.

Securitizing the policing mandate

Post-9/11 legislation in both the U.S. and Canada has changed the security landscape in sweeping ways, as perceptions of public threats evolve to emphasize political terrorism and radicalization as the central public safety issue. Whereas pre-9/11 mandates prompted a more reactive style of policing guided by what's actionable according to the Criminal Code, post-9/11 legislation such as Bill C-36 and Bill C-51 extends policing powers outside the realm of public accountability, as such laws were drafted with the much broader and more malleable objective of "security" in mind.

Many extraordinary legal powers given to police by omnibus crime bills such as C-36 are not restricted to special security agencies (as they are in the U.S. and the U.K.), but are made available to all Canadian public police officers. Considerable debate has taken place over time on the necessity of expanding policing powers, but ultimately, such powers have been accepted by a majority of lawmakers in Canada as necessary measures to negate the rise of domestic and international terrorism. This shift in Canadian policing results in the application of pro-security practices and "solutions" that don't always fit every domestic incident.

DJs and rappers perform at the Black Lives Matter protest in front of Toronto police headquarters on March 26, 2016. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

A change in mandate means a change in expectations, made more acute with bloated budgets and a larger police force. The post-9/11 expectation of identifying possible terrorist threats before they begin, along with the corresponding belief in pre-emptive policing, opens the door to higher probabilities of operational mistakes. These mistakes exacerbate the kind of secrecy and lack of accountability that the public was concerned with even in the days before 9/11. That this rise in securitization with respect to policing hasn't been accompanied by any rise in the regulatory capacity of government makes concerns even more acute, as the risk of shrinking civil liberties become more obvious. The integration of local policing mandates into a national security framework calls for accountability and oversight not just at the local or regional levels, but at the highest levels of national government as well.

Protesters at Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square objected to a decision by Ontario's police watchdog to recommend no charges against an officer who shot Andrew Loku. (CBC)

A community afflicted by crime calls for solutions that include sound partnerships with local police based on mutual trust. This can't happen if the community in question, be it the black community or whomever else, is framed by a national security agenda that perceives it as the enemy.

Controlling crime in a law-abiding fashion is at risk of being turned into a security-based managing of possible risks through surveillance and intelligence gathering. This may make sense in particularly extraordinary situations that involve controlled anti-terrorism procedures, but it doesn't make sense for local policing meant to serve and protect, not just to patrol and secure.

Steven Zhou is a Toronto writer who has experience in human rights advocacy. He has worked for Human Rights Watch, OXFAM Canada and other NGOs.