A Dubious Strategy to "Overprotect" Racialized Communities
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A Dubious Strategy to “Overprotect” Racialized Communities

Politicians prefer gun-violence solutions that involve more police.

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On Thursday, Police Chief Bill Blair announced that, starting with this weekend’s Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival (previously known as Caribana), hundreds of extra officers will perform mandated overtime shifts. Blair’s goal is to increase police presence in the streets. While he didn’t say where the extra officers will be deployed after the carnival ends on August 6, his remarks, and those of his colleagues, suggest more police activity in Toronto’s 13 priority neighbourhoods, where police presence is already high. Blair assured the public his officers intend to “overprotect” communities, not over-police them.

Deputy Chief Peter Sloly promised “continuous pursuit of our high-risk offenders,” as well as “continuous engagement with our young people, and our community partners in those neighbourhoods in the most respectful and development-focused ways possible.” While the police seem equipped to fulfill the first part of that pledge, the notion of “respectful” policing in Toronto’s racialized neighbourhoods, where police relations are poor and resentment is high, is much harder to imagine.

Sloly noted that in recent days, “all 17 police divisions have created and implemented operational plans that deal with gun violence and gang violence.” He did not, however, mention any specific plans to address the persistent instances of racial profiling and excessive carding that plague police interactions with racialized people.

Margaret Parsons, head of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, appears to recognize this. She noted recently that residents are “not against more security that is respectful, that is balanced, that’s not just going to stop a 15- or 17-year-old just because he’s African Canadian and he’s walking home late at night from his part-time job.” Such police contact is, as the Toronto Star put it, “a troubling rite of passage” for far too many racialized individuals and communities in our city. Increased police presence could have positive outcomes, but it could also cause permanent mistrust and fear if profiling persists.

Leaders from community groups—including Tropicana and the Jamaican Canadian Association—welcomed the increased police presence, but warned police to abandon failed profiling tactics. Tropicana executive director Sharon Shelton reminded police of an “expectation of mutual respect” within the city’s priority neighbourhoods. At the same time, Shelton urged frustrated residents to work with police, “even if you feel that they have let you down in the past.” This is the context for the latest mobilization of hundreds of additional police officers into the poorest, most stigmatized areas of the city.

It is critical to understand that our police are taking their cues from media, politicians, and residents who demand that racialized groups take primary responsibility for ongoing gun violence. In announcing a new and unprecedented search policy for this weekend’s Caribbean Carnival, spokesperson Stephen Weir gave a candid explanation: “We have been inundated with phone calls from the media—mostly white reporters—asking us, what are we going to do and what’s going to happen?”

Weir openly doubted that searching 20,000 spectators in the bleachers would lead to any weapon seizures, and acknowledged that organizers were responding to the recent mass shooting in Scarborough “even though it has nothing to do with us.” It’s likely that organizers of the recently cancelled Irie Festival events felt similar pressure to take ownership of recent gun violence. Ironically, the cancellation of an entire weekend of events at Yonge-Dundas Square means the many racialized youth who would have been paid to share their talents will now, in the name of security, have to find something else to do.

As Basics Community News Service’s Tony Couto observed recently, even the Safer and Vital Communities Program—a community-grants program recently renewed by the province as an anti-violence measure—requires grant recipients to work with the police. Politicians prefer solutions to gun violence that feature the threat of force.

Of course, if extra police scrutiny of poor and racialized people were the key to a safer city, Toronto’s guns would have been silenced decades ago. We need a new approach—one that does not betray fear of people who are overwhelmingly the victims of Toronto’s violent gun culture.

CORRECTION: August 1, 2012, 5:30 PM This post originally stated that Tony Couto wrote for Basics Magazine. This is incorrect. He writes for Basics Community News Service. We apologize for this error.