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politics

What Toronto Can Learn From the Police Shooting of Michael Brown

Police militarization, racial profiling, and excessive force—they're not just problems for Ferguson, Missouri.

It might be comforting to think that the tragic shooting of Michael Brown—an 18-year-old unarmed black man—by a white police officer on August 9 and the resulting chaos in Ferguson, Missouri, are distinctly American phenomena. The history of racial tensions, the heavy-handed policing tactics, the disproportionate criminalization of young black men—these are issues that have long plagued the United States, a country so obsessed with law and order that it has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

But look a little closer, and the lines between Ferguson and Toronto begin to blur. The photos of police officers in full riot gear brandishing body shields and tear gas canisters at protesters start to look a lot like the images from the G20 summit in 2010. The Ferguson police’s racial profiling mirrors the Toronto Police Service’s (TPS) practice of disproportionately carding and documenting young men of colour. And the six shots fired against the unarmed Brown while he attempted to flee echo the tragic killing of Sammy Yatim, who was shot repeatedly on an empty Toronto streetcar, or Michael Eligon, who was killed after walking toward police officers while brandishing two pairs of scissors.

Much of the discussion surrounding the events in Ferguson has focused on the discrepancy between Ferguson’s majority African-American population and the nearly all-white police force. Only 20 years ago, Toronto also had a police service that was 94 per cent white. While outgoing police chief Bill Blair has received many accolades for attempting to diversify the police force during his tenure, by 2010 only 18 per cent of the force was female, while less than 20 per cent belonged to a visible minority—a small step for a city where women make up half the population and half of all residents are non-white.

Toronto has a police force that still does not accurately reflect the communities it is meant to protect. A particular case in point is the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS), a unit born out of 2005’s “summer of the gun.” TAVIS officers are not stationed in a specific neighbourhood, but are instead deployed to different parts of the city depending on criminal activity. Described as a “racial profiling unit” by community members, TAVIS is notorious in low-income neighbourhoods for conducting public strip searches, assaulting individuals, and pointing guns at unarmed teenagers—just like the Ferguson police. It’s not surprising that TAVIS has the highest rate of stopping and documenting black individuals of all TPS units.

Appropriate policing is measured both in terms of how police officers engage with individuals and how they engage with crowds. The Ferguson police’s appearance in riot gear and armoured vehicles during the initial protests last week sent a clear message to individuals attempting to exercise their right to freedom of assembly. Peaceful crowds chanting for justice have been repelled with rubber bullets, dogs, and a sound cannon, while families with small children have been tear gassed.

This trend toward the militarization of police forces—one described in a number of recent articles—has troubling impacts for police-civilian relations. Toronto police are not immune, despite major crime levels having dropped 20 per cent in the past three years. Rather than announce when exactly the TPS will implement its pilot program involving body-worn cameras—which have been shown to improve safety and police-community relationships—Chief Blair requested increased funding to extend access to Tasers from supervisors and tactical squad officers to general front-line cops, despite objections from mental health advocates. The request, which would have cost nearly $400,000, was denied by the Toronto Police Services Board.

Police forces argue that they require military-style weapons and equipment in order to defend themselves from violent crowds. Yet during the G20, when the Toronto police joined other forces from across the county in brandishing tear gas and riot equipment, reported injuries were the result of police officers attacking unarmed civilians, rather than the other way around. Police in Ferguson have argued that looting and property destruction have necessitated their brutal response, while protesters have said that they’ve remained peaceful and raised their arms in submission. In both Toronto and Ferguson, police have relied on advanced weaponry, restrictions on access to public space, mass arrests, and the harassment of journalists and media personnel to assert their dominance and control the public.

There are, of course, many differences between Toronto and Ferguson. In the U.S., a black individual is shot and killed by a white police officer every two weeks—a statistic that is thankfully unimaginable in Canada. The TPS has made progress thanks to Chief Blair’s admission of the existence of racial profiling and by attempting to build community connections through the Police and Community Engagement Review, which outlined recommendations for training and oversight. Yet at the root of the tragic events in Ferguson and the clashes between police and civilians in the past few years in Toronto is a growing divide between the police and the communities they are supposed to serve.

This divide was recently explored in a half-hour documentary film, Crisis of Distrust, that we produced at the Toronto Policing Literacy Initiative. In the film, young people from across Toronto describe the fraught relationship they have with police in their neighbourhood, and many discuss the profiling and discrimination that they have experienced. Any one of them could have been Michael Brown.

Screening the film to different audiences across the city this summer has taught us that what Toronto residents want from their police is the same as what the residents of Ferguson want: diversity, transparency, and equity. Toronto police officers can learn a great deal from the tragedy in Ferguson, provided they are ready to listen.

Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy is a former Torontoist contributor and a member of Policing Literacy Initiative. She covered the G20 for us and was hit by a police officer; hers is the second case that is now in the works against the one officer who has so far been convicted. Zakaria Abdulle is the Director of the Policing Literacy Initiative.

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