The Current

Questions around systemic racism in policing show reluctance to engage in talks, change, says former officer

Lesley Bikos, who worked for the London Police Service and now studies policing culture, says that police forces are 'reluctant' to discuss racism — and that shifting the culture will be difficult.

Lesley Bikos now studies policing culture and says that forces are 'reluctant' to discuss racism

Thousands of people took part in an anti-racism protest in downtown Toronto Friday. Protesters have called for greater accountability from Canada's police agencies, cuts to policing budgets and acknowledgement of systemic racism in law enforcement. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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A former London, Ont., police officer says comments from the head of the RCMP questioning the existence of systemic racism among her ranks are "disheartening."

"You have to ask yourself, at what point does this become wilful in terms of how at this point, as a police leader, do you not understand these things?" said Lesley Bikos, who now studies policing culture at Western University.

"Policing seems to be very reluctant to talk about issues of race, to engage in issues about race," she added.

Anti-Black racism protests in recent weeks have called for greater accountability from Canada's police agencies, cuts to policing budgets and acknowledgement of systemic racism in law enforcement.

Earlier this week, the deputy commissioner of Alberta RCMP denied systemic racism in his agency, or anywhere in Canada. In an interview with CBC News' Rosemary Barton on Wednesday, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki pointed to "unconscious bias" when asked whether systemic racism was a problem within the agency.

"I have honestly heard about 15 or 20 definitions of systemic racism, and if it refers to an unconscious bias that exists, then we definitely have that in the RCMP and we are not immune to it at all," she said. 

"In any case, there are times when our members don't act in accordance with our core values, which includes racism."

RCMP commissioner talks about racism in the force

2 years ago
Duration 1:15
In an interview with the CBC’s Rosemary Barton, Commissioner Brenda Lucki says the RCMP has to more to confront unconscious bias as well as members who "don't act in accordance with our core values." 1:15

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that systemic racism exists in policing across the country, including the RCMP.

Bikos says that several inquiries and commissions, including the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and an Office of the Independent Police Review Director report, have found evidence of systemic racism in policing in Canada.

In order to create meaningful change, she says police need to do more than just enact policies.

"Culture will eat policy for breakfast," Bikos told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"This is something that will be so hard to shift, and I'm not convinced you could even shift it from the inside."

Burden of proof for racism

Alain Babineau was an RCMP officer for 27 years before retiring in 2016. When he joined the agency in the early 1990s, he says "overt" racism was becoming less common, whereas colleagues — other Black officers — working in the 70s and early 80s, recalled that "the use of the N-word would be bandied around quite liberally."

In his experience, "it was more embedded, it was innuendos, because by then some of the policies had come in place in terms of human rights, in terms of the so-called diversity policies," he said.

According to Babineau, now an adviser with the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, racism often played out in who was chosen to take certain courses, who was promoted, and which positions officers were offered.

As a Black officer, Babineau added that he was tokenized not only for his skin colour, but for being bilingual. People assumed "doors are going to be magically opening for you," he said.

Alain Babineau, a spokesperson for the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) and a former RCMP officer, said he's experienced the effects of racism as a Black police officer. (Charles Contant/CBC)

While some officers would file complaints or go to superiors about the treatment, Babineau says that "embedded" racism often went unchecked because it was difficult to prove. More than that, members of the agency often worried how they would be perceived — and consequently ostracized by their peers — if they spoke up.

That's a common worry, says Bikos, who has interviewed or surveyed approximately 850 police officers in the course of her research.

"You have examples of officers who have tried to come forward who do experience sometimes extreme professional and personal implications for trying to speak out and trying to do 'the right thing,'" she said.

Trudeau questioned about systemic racism in the RCMP

2 years ago
Duration 2:50
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he believes systemic racism is an issue in institutions across Canada, including police forces and the RCMP. 2:50

Systemic vs. systematic

Babineau says that in order to recognize systemic racism, police must rethink the idea that racism is only something done deliberately and with malice.

"If you talk about something that's systematic, well, it kind of gives the idea that it's done on purpose and ... it's done with a goal in mind. " he said.

"When you look at systemic [issues], you're talking about a series of practises, policies, a way of doing things — either formal or informal — that over time have embedded [in] the organization in the way of operations."

Babineau also encouraged Black police officers to speak up about the injustices that they face, adding that he believes "no sensible organization" will punish members for speaking out in this moment.

When asked if the global anger directed toward police will result in change, Babineau was blunt.

"Well, it better," he told Galloway.

"I'm always willing to trust, but I also want to verify. So we'll see what happens."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Julie Crysler and Rachel Levy-Mclaughlin