825 words; 4 minutes to read.
John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto. His new book, “Crisis in Canada’s Policing,” written with the research assistance of Christopher J. Williams, a leading member of the Black community in Toronto, is on sale now.
The book makes a number of suggestions for reform. Three of these were reprised recently in The Toronto Star. This post is drawn from that article. The audio summary is courtesy of volunteer Averi Brailey.
Everyone is a generalist
First, Sewell notes that the police, unlike most other organizations, start everyone at the bottom as a generalist, no matter their experience or training.
Rather than retaining specialists to deal with youth or intimate-partner violence, for instance, police forces assign officers to these duties and give them special training to do the job. Officers rotate through special squads, moving on to something else every few years as new officers are brought in and trained. A police service will not, for example, hire a first-rate investigator from an insurance company to act as a detective; that person would have to start as a recruit at the bottom and do years of other work before being able to work as a detective.
Police forces are led by individuals who have worked within this system for their whole working lives and who think, as a result, that this is just common practice.
One effect of this approach is to reduce innovation. Those who want to bring change and new approaches to police services will find themselves cut after their interview with the recruiter.
Police should instead adopt the staffing policies used by other large organizations: advertise to find the best candidate for a specific role. This would also bring individuals with a variety of life experiences and expectations into the police force, two qualities that can only improve the organization. And these new hires will not be infected with police culture; they will be ready to challenge that culture.
Most police do not need to carry guns
Almost every police officer in Canada carries a gun. Many officers never fire that gun throughout their whole career. The number of times a year a gun is fired by a large city’s police is often in the single digits; yet more than two dozen people a year die in Canada because of police shootings. It is past time for considering disarming rank-and-file officers, as is the case in 19 countries around the world.
An unarmed officer will require good negotiation and de-escalation skills. They will have to use restraint in dangerous situations, which is much needed in police interactions.
Unarmed police officers could also take off body armour, which creates the feeling we are all living in a dangerous society and does nothing to inspire a sense of security and safety.
Police should not determine whether charges are laid
The most effective way of changing discriminatory practices within police work is in implementing pre-charge screening, which requires Crown attorneys, not the police, to lay charges. Pre-charge screening now occurs in several provinces, and they have much lower caseloads than provinces without it. In Ontario, more than half of all charges laid by police are stayed or withdrawn, while in Quebec, where crowns lay charges, less than 10 per cent are. In British Columbia, the Crown requires a case to meet a “substantial likelihood of conviction,” rather than a “reasonable likelihood” or “reasonable prospect” of conviction, the standards elsewhere in the country. Again the result is fewer dropped charges.
Pre-charge screening should also be used to filter out discriminatory police behaviour. If crown attorneys use racial and gendered lenses in their evaluation of charges, they will help to reduce the discrimination faced by racialized people and women.
Ineffective governance of police
The changes suggested here (better hiring practices, de-weaponizing the rank and file, pre-charge screening) are part of a package of a dozen recommendations proposed in this book. They must be made primarily by police boards but also by city councilors and provincial legislators.
There is not a police board in the country that does an effective job at providing direction to the chief (who is responsible for day-to-day management) or encourages the public to engage in discussion about issues of safety and security. Thus there are no currently existing models for making a police board an effective mechanism.
Something more disruptive is needed to create the opportunities for change. I recommend filling police boards with a host of new members from Black, Indigenous and minority communities who will introduce new ways of thinking, change the way the police function, end systemic racial and sexual discrimination, and end police violence.
Change is needed
We have an opportunity to make significant change to policing in Canada and we should seize it. This book offers a short list of practical, reasonably achieved changes that could be made if local leaders step forward and demand that police begin to grapple with these issues and reimagine policing in ways that better serves the public interest.