Most officers aren't racist, but the nature of modern policing must be reimagined
Racial profiling is a systemic problem, and not a case of a few bad apples
This column is an opinion by Alain Babineau, a social justice advocate and former police officer with the Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
I am a Black man raised in French Canadian culture who came of age in the Afro-Canadian/Caribbean culture and found his roots and his soul in advocating for social justice inspired by the American civil rights movement. When I was a kid, I wanted to be either a cop or a bandit. Well, I chose the safer route — I think.
During my first attempt to become a cop with the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force, I was asked how I would react to being called the N-word. I was not hired but eventually fulfilled my dream of serving in law enforcement. During my 30 years in the field, I was taught that it was normal to pay close attention to communities with a statistically high crime rate. As a Black police officer, I personally practised racial profiling and was also a victim of it out of uniform.
In both instances, I honestly thought it was a justified practice. But I later discovered you can make statistics say pretty much anything you want them to.
I am now a reformed racial profiler.
"There is no system where everybody is a racist."
That is essentially what our premier claims when asked if there is systemic racism in Quebec, and I agree. My experience in policing is that most police officers are not racists. But as retired senator Murray Sinclair put it, systemic racism is "when the system itself is based upon and founded upon racist beliefs and philosophies and thinking."
Because these beliefs and philosophies have shaped the policies and practices in policing, even I, a Black cop, can act in a racist way — and I did.
Racial profiling is a systemic problem, and not a case of a few bad apples.
Racial profiling and overpolicing
Since my retirement from the RCMP in 2016, I have continued to advocate for racialized police officers facing discrimination within their organizations. Truthfully, not much has changed since I was first hired. I have also been an advisor on racial profiling for the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), where I really discovered how systemic racial profiling affects individuals and their families, as well as entire communities.
At CRARR, I have met a Black man who was pushed and handcuffed by police at a gas station and had video of the interaction deleted from his cellphone and a young Black man who when he opened his front door to leave for school, found himself staring down the barrels of nine police officers' guns — characterized as "an unfortunate mistake by the police."
I've met a Black man who, while on his way to buy milk, was roughly arrested, slammed face-first into the floor and cuffed tightly — a case of "mistaken identity" — and a Black man driving a Mercedes Benz who has been pulled over so many times by police that he equipped himself and his vehicle with cameras to police the police.
When I first applied to the RCMP, I was racially profiled by the recruiting officer, who characterized me as a young, Black youth involved in the drug culture. I was devastated, but I filed a human rights complaint — a battle that lasted several years — and eventually won my right to become a police officer. Because, you see, racial profiling is based on stereotypical assumptions related to one's race, colour or ethnicity.
The people are the police, and the police are the people
I'm blaming the media here for the historically negative portrayal of young Black males, who have been characterized as delinquent, violent and/or menacing street thugs.
An official with the Montreal Police Service said at a 2010 press conference on crime statistics that street gangs commit a small percentage of crime in the city, but that those crimes garner 60 to 70 per cent of the media's attention. Over time, those negative stereotypes against Black people have permeated the psyche of the majority of the population.
I will never forget one experience years ago while still fighting to join the RCMP. At a social event in Ottawa, I met an RCMP sergeant who encouraged me to join the force because I was French and Black and could work undercover.
He went on to explain to me the various categories of "Blacks" I would encounter as a cop and their particular "criminalities." He said "Haitians" were liars, mostly involved in immigration fraud but not dangerous. "Jamaicans" were "dope dealers." "Nova Scotian Blacks" were real hardcore criminals and dangerous.
What made this serving RCMP member feel comfortable telling me, a Black man, these extremely racist stereotypes, I will never know. I had a similar conversation years later in Toronto, as a new recruit with the Ontario Provincial Police. My coach officer took the time to tell me the "ground truth" about "Chinese drivers" and "East Indian tow truck drivers."
In a 1996 Canadian research paper, nearly half of the respondents said they believed that a relationship exists between race and criminality, and of those, 65 per cent thought that Black people committed more crimes than other racial or ethnic groups. Of course, when the police act on stereotypical views of racialized people, racial stereotyping becomes a concern with oppressive implications.
Mobilizing the community
A 2019 report on police street checks commissioned by the City of Montreal made it abundantly clear: racial profiling is alive and well in this city.
Policing protects the foundation of our society. To suggest that the majority of police officers are racists is just as silly as to argue that most Black folks are criminals. The "policing culture" is a microcosm of society. We are beyond policing reforms, and it is the very nature of modern policing that must be re-imagined. I believe members of Black and other vulnerable communities must be included in the process.
To save the soul of policing, there should be nothing about us without us.
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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.