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Protests over inequities put police in the spotlight

A new poll shows Canadians are less inclined to trust police services in this country, that number dropping to 70 per cent from 81 per cent in early May. That was before the killing of George Floyd and the resultant protests, first in the U.S. and then globally, including here in Waterloo Region.

The Leger poll’s findings are hardly surprising given all of the attention now focused on racism, social inequities and abuses perpetrated by police. The issues are top of mind.

Canada is not immune to system racism, nor to police violence – Indigenous communities, for instance, know this full well – but the situation here is nothing like the massive societal ills in the U.S.

While police-involved shootings are rare here, police are under increasing scrutiny given the ubiquitous cell phone videos and social media. Luckily, we’ve got nothing like the problems seen in the U.S., where police seem to be involved in controversial shootings as a matter of course. That’s most evident where racial minorities are involved, and the country seems more uneasy with that reality.

The killing of Floyd, deemed a murder, and a host of other such deaths – the recent shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta among them – mean something’s got to change.

Such shootings are troubling on many levels, not least of which is that they often involve an unarmed man posing no danger to either the officer or the public. The racial element only heightens the tension in a climate where the shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York sparked nationwide protests and fuelled the Black Lives Matter movement.

Closer to home, Toronto has more violent crime and, though still not common, more incidents involving police shootings, including the likes of the 2013 death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on a TTC streetcar. The incident was caught on video, as is often the case with recent police-involved deaths.

A 2019 Ontario Human Rights Commission report found black people were “grossly overrepresented” in use-of-force cases handled by Toronto police, including seven of 10 fatal shootings between 2012 and 2017.

While the situation in Toronto is always more involved and volatile than policing in Waterloo Region, for instance, that’s not to say the concerns stop at the municipal boundary line. Stories of police misconduct, malfeasance and corruption anywhere – the RCMP, OPP or any municipal department – tars the entire system, and feeds the public’s growing distrust.

The Canadian public’s perception of police has become more negative, though vacillating over the years. There’s plenty of room for improvement, even here away from the tensions south of the border.

Nothing like that climate exists in Waterloo Region, but people here are equally subject to news about shootings. And we’re just as prone to speculation given the dearth of information. Clearing the air is essential.

Calls for defunding the police are perhaps less warranted here, though there’s a case to be made about controlling costs and achieving better outcomes.

Largely misunderstood, defunding is actually about large-scale reforms rather than simply doing away with police departments – clearly we need some form of policing. But the argument is about countering the militarization of civilian forces, about reallocating money to the likes of social work and underlying issues, and about hiring and training officers who’ll be focused on serving the public, de-escalating situations rather turning to violence as the first order of business.

And, of course, it’s about ending anything like systemic racism, which is an issue even here in friendlier, more multicultural Canada.

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