Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

If we want to reform our police forces, we have to overcome their history of racial violence

Reforming law enforcement won't be a matter of going back to a time before racism, writes Ainsley Hawthorn in a guest column. She says it will require acknowledging that policing in North America has, from the beginning, been deeply infused with racism.

We need to acknowledge that policing in North America was from the beginning infused with racism

A protester comes face-to-face with Montreal police at an anti-racism demonstration in June. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

This column is an opinion by Ainsley Hawthorn, a writer in St. John's. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

In recent weeks, investigators cleared officers of wrongdoing in the police-involved deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto and Attachie Ashoona in Kinngait, Nunavut.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a grand jury failed to bring charges against the three Kentucky police officers who shot Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black ER technician, in her own home.

These developments are just the latest in a long string of racial injustices that have eroded public confidence in law enforcement and led to calls to defund the police across both the United States and Canada. They have reinvigorated protests against police brutality and renewed public demands for police accountability.

Some have suggested that the deaths of Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) at the hands of police or in police custody are a sign that police are simply oversubscribed, that in our modern society police officers are expected to deal with too wide a range of tasks to handle them all adequately, from intervening in assaults to responding to mental health crises, from busting drug rings to ticketing traffic violations.

While there may be good reason to divvy up police duties to allow for specialization, we shouldn't deceive ourselves into believing that police brutality is new or that racism is incidental to it.

A long and difficult history

On the contrary, racialized violence has been part and parcel of North American police institutions from the very beginning.

Policing as we know it is only about 350 years old. King Louis XIV founded the first modern police force in Paris in 1667, after a plague outbreak followed by food riots led to widespread instability in the metropolis.

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Although today we see the pitfalls of assigning too diverse a slate of responsibilities to police, King Louis' intention was to centralize a wide variety of functions he felt were shared inefficiently between too many officials.

The broad mandate of this new branch of the public service was "ensuring the peace and quiet of the public and of private individuals, purging the city of what may cause disturbances, procuring abundance, and having each and everyone live according to their station and their duties."

Protesters march against racial injustice and for Black women following the grand jury decision in Louisville's Breonna Taylor case, in Denver in September. (Kevin Mohatt/Reuters)

The French model of policing soon began to catch on elsewhere, with modifications. When an Act of Parliament sponsored by Sir Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police in London in 1829, the new institution's mission statement – popularly known as Peel's Principles – emphasized crime prevention over arrests, persuasion over physical force, and impartiality over patronage.

Although it took its inspiration from Peelian policing, policing in North America was shaped by the ongoing European takeover of Indigenous territories, the enslavement of Africans and interethnic conflict in the continent's urban centres.

Laying claim to land

The North-West Mounted Police (NWMP), predecessor of the RCMP, was established in 1873 by John A. Macdonald to secure the continent north and west of Upper Canada.

Although the NWMP was supposedly founded to prevent conflicts between the area's Indigenous inhabitants and American traders, the presence of the force was also a way for the colonial Canadian government to lay claim to the land.

Listen to this episode of the CBC podcast The Secret Life of Canada, about the history of the RCMP: 

The Mountie is one Canada’s most enduring symbols. Found on souvenirs from keychains to dish towels, our national police force are icons to the rest of the world. Weird, right? In this episode, we try to figure out how this happened and talk about: the image of the Mountie in early Hollywood, what Irish and Indian resistance to British rule has to do with it, and why young Canada felt a greater need for policing in the West. With the help of Dr. Winona Wheeler, we dive into the early years of the North-West Mounted Police (precursor to the RCMP) and look at their complex relationship with Indigenous people that, for better or worse, continues to this day. *Warning, strong language and content. To find transcriptions for episodes of The Secret Life of Canada Season Three, please click here:

The NWMP paved the way for white settlement of the West. They forcibly relocated Indigenous peoples whose homes lay in the path of the Canadian Pacific Railway, they provided assistance and security to white ranchers, and they helped suppress the North-West Rebellion that Louis Riel led.

In the American South, policing was steeped in the institution of slavery. Before the Civil War, slave patrols protected the commercial interests of white slavers by tracking down Black runaways. After the war, sheriffs continued to support the subjugation of Black people, punishing those who violated Jim Crow segregation laws while turning a blind eye to lynchings.

Municipal police also had their roots in interethnic conflict. The first metropolitan forces were formed largely in response to an influx of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Germany during the 19th century. These newcomers were seen as a threat to the stability of North American cities like Toronto, New York, and Boston, whose populations were, at the time, mostly English, Scottish, and Dutch.

North-West Mounted Police officers are seen in this photo, circa 1900. (Library and Archives Canada)

The mandate of all these early forces was primarily to maintain order rather than to prevent crime. The way we define order, though, is political, it's culturally specific, and it varies over time. North American police forces were created by governments whose idea of order included quashing Indigenous opposition to European settlement, preserving separation between the races, and limiting the role of BIPOC people in public life.

This is recent history, not the distant past, and the long shadow of these origins has affected how our police agencies function into the twenty-first century.

Governments across Canada continue to deploy the RCMP to defend corporate interests and stamp out Indigenous protests.

Throughout North America, police are still more suspicious of BIPOC individuals than white people and resort to violence more hastily when interacting with them.

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As we reimagine our legal institutions, we must remember that there was no "Golden Age" when policing was always fair and even-handed. Reforming law enforcement won't be a matter of going back to a time before racism – it will require acknowledging that policing in North America has, from the beginning, been deeply infused with racism.

Our task is to overcome that legacy.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ainsley Hawthorn

Freelance contributor

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.

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