Be prepared: The road to any change in policing will be long and arduous

Good thoughtful and realistic commentary by Richard Fadden,former national security adviser to the prime minister, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, deputy minister of national defence and deputy clerk of the Privy Council:

It is now beyond reasonable debate that the issue of systemic racism in our law-enforcement institutions must be seriously addressed. This is not to suggest that every police service is equally flawed, or that every officer acts unacceptably, consciously or not; indeed, we must avoid ascribing all of society’s ills to the police who serve us, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater, and ignore how other social institutions also contribute to systemic discrimination. But clearly, the current model of policing needs to change.

Political leaders, legislators, police board members, city councils and police chiefs in Canada and the United States have acknowledged as much, and with various degrees of specificity, have said that something must be done. What that might look like remains difficult to discern. Some have suggested the abolition of some police forces altogether; that is a non-starter, and will only divert attention away from more effective ways of dealing with the issue. Defunding is a more complicated proposal; most police forces are already underfinanced, but a careful look at how public funding is being used would be a worthwhile undertaking. Some police practices likely need to be more strictly limited or forbidden, including chokeholds and carding, while new ones should be mandated. And police-training curricula should be reformed so that they’re about more than just firearm requalification and criminal-law updates; it must be disseminated repeatedly over the course of all levels of a police career, and must send the message that the coercive power of the state should always be the last resort.

But whatever the solution is, it will be important to understand that change will be profoundly difficult – indeed, far harder than any simple message being delivered – because of the closed-personnel nature of these police services.

Closed-personnel organizations are ones in which young men and women join as recruits, plan to stay for their entire careers and work toward promotion within that force (some entry at mid-level is possible, but is relatively rare). Such systems aren’t the exclusive domain of police forces; they can also be found in intelligence agencies, foreign services, the military and in many religions.

All organizations develop a culture that determines not so much what they do but rather how they carry out their work, and police services are no exception, with the culture pervading widely across this closed loop. But while police culture varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and is a function of many factors, a crucial commonality is that officers spend the majority of their time dealing with a small part of the population that the rest of us would often rather not hear about. This gives rise to a we-versus-them mentality – one that’s amplified by the closed-personnel systems and their practical requirement that members strongly support one another, often against any outsiders. The pressures of this culture of conformity and mutual support also make it difficult to operate within the structure. Policing’s hierarchical, command-and-control approach to managing and standardizing behaviour – as is required by the considerable power held by individual police officers – should make it easier to discipline “bad apples.” Instead, police culture tends to counterbalance the ability of chiefs to act.

Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with police officers from many forces. Virtually all of them impressed me with their dedication, work ethic and belief that their role was central to peace, order and good government. But I remember that most only ever wanted to discuss their good qualities; areas where improvement might be possible were rarely ever raised. With some notable exceptions, usually at the chief level, they were professionally very conservative and resistant to any suggestions from outsiders such as myself, my colleagues, or cabinet ministers.

Without a shadow of a doubt, statements to press for change by political leaders, legislators and police chiefs are necessary, but they’re far from sufficient. Consider the challenges in dealing with sexual abuse among the Roman Catholic clergy despite the views of the Pope, or the Canadian Armed Forces’ sexual-harassment crisis despite the efforts of the Chief of the Defence Staff. Indeed, it is telling that front-line officers and their unions or associations are often missing from the list of those agitating for change.

To get officers on board, organizations that work with the police should, at minimum, transparently acknowledge their own complicity in policing’s problems. To suggest that police boards, city councils, responsible ministers, Crown counsel and criminal law courts knew nothing of these appalling practices is to suggest either gross negligence or incompetence, when neither view is warranted. This broader insensitivity to systemic racism is part and parcel of the issues in our police.

Systemic discrimination or racism anywhere is an assault on what most Canadians believe and what the Charter demands. Because of how police services are organized, however, transformation is going to be arduous and slow. Police chiefs working inside their organizations cannot do this alone: a considerable amount of political capital, structural untangling and society-wide patience is going to have to be expended if the long mission ahead has any hope of succeeding.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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