It’s an interesting week in Halifax policing. On Monday, the first day of Kayla Borden’s appeal hearing at the Police Review Board took place at the same time as the Board of Police Commissioners meeting.
While police leadership went into existential crisis, arguing at the Board that morale was low because of “activism” and “cancel culture,” at the Police Review Board hearing we were encountering many of the actual reasons why policing is facing increased criticism and scrutiny: police investigating themselves, allegations of systemic racism, terrorizing people for no reason (“a mistake”), and the taxpayer footing the bill for all of it when police face complaints.
I want to note here that Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella is asking for more money in part to hire an administrative support person for Freedom-of-Information requests. These would be the same requests that police charge outrageous sums like $40, 000 to complete. Jeez, I could make like two requests and pay a civilian salary myself, except I suppose that would be “activism,” and thus would cause a drop in morale requiring even more money.
It’s weird how activists raise issues and then the police get more money, isn’t it? We call for an end to racial profiling and then police need more money to hire diversity officers and take training (more on that later.) We request basic information on policies and don’t get it, and the police magically need more money. It’s almost like activism is good for the police pocket book! You’re welcome, Dan.
We’ll return to police leadership at the end, but meanwhile, here are some of the highlights from Kayla Borden’s appeal hearing:
1. Police have no clue about any of their own policies
Borden’s lawyer Devin Maxwell has opened questioning of every single officer by asking if they can relate basic elements of policies like use of force, identifying suspects, deploying spike belts, when to make an arrest, and so on.
This line of questioning is particularly interesting because advocates have been trying for years to get access to HRP policies. Unlike other municipalities, Halifax does not make this information available online, nor do they provide these policies upon request. Maxwell was able to obtain heavily redacted copies of these policies only under the condition that he not share them with anyone.
So, it’s of great interest what these policies actually are, and it turns out, the police don’t seem to know either.
While officers were more conversant with the regulations governing use of force and could at least explain the different levels of force, when it came to traffic stops, suspects, and policies governing arrest, they could neither cite nor give details of any policies. This is significant in the case of traffic stops not only because it concerns Borden’s specific complaint, but also because the issue of traffic stops was excluded from the reports and data around street checks.
While the African Nova Scotian community has been consistently clear that all forms of racial profiling, criminalization, and surveillance must be banned, focusing on street checks and their specific definition has allowed the police to avoid any accountability around traffic stops, even though Kirk Johnson’s human rights case concerned multiple stops.
In jurisdictions where this data is available, Black people are — unsurprisingly — disproportionately stopped.
Remember when Stephen Colbert mocked George W. Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner?
Guys like us, we’re not some brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut. Right, sir?
That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. Now, I know some of you are going to say, “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.
Apparently, this is also how policing works in Halifax. Officers repeatedly have stated that they know policy exists somewhere — apparently not in a policy manual, but maybe on computers you can access at the station, but that no one seems to actually access — and they’re sure they go over it sometimes, but really, when it comes to performing stops they just go with their gut.
It’s understandable, like any job, that much of what you know is learned by doing, but this becomes more alarming when police are enforcing laws they don’t seem to know, when they receive only six months of training at police colleges before being sworn in, and when they have the power to use force and stop and arrest people. It’s reasonable for the public to expect that they might at least be required to be conversant in the professional standards governing their work.
Most disturbingly, in Tuesday’s testimony, Maxwell’s questioning of Cst. Andrew Nicholson revealed that police policy on arrests, which Maxwell read out, and reading the arrestees rights promptly was not followed. One police argument seems to be that since Borden was “only” in handcuffs for a minute, it’s no big deal.
Which leads us to the second thing we learned…
2. Police don’t have much training
Training is one of the recommendations consistently made by advocates of police reform. The police just need more training! people exclaim, and hand them more money.
Of course, just like their policies, we don’t actually know what’s in their training, how it is evaluated, which parts are mandatory, or any information that would allow us to assess the content of this training, whether it is effective, whether new training meets any standards or anything else.
It’s not news that police only are required to take a short program at a police college to qualify to be an officer. While the officers were sure that training included materials on race and diversity, they couldn’t remember any particulars of what they learned. They indicated that as officers, they take training in January where presumably their skills and knowledge are updated, but again, the details were all very vague.
What we see is that the police will claim reforms to training and policies, but in practice, officers seem to just learn everything as they go: the danger of this, of course, is that this allows racist or other discriminatory practices to be baked into the culture and simply passed down to each new generation of officers.
3. “That was an epic failure”
It emerged in Tuesday’s hearing that following the arrest of Borden — a Black woman driving a silver Dodge Avenger who was “mistaken” for a white male driving a dark-coloured Honda — one of the officers wrote into their notes from the scene, “that was an epic failure.”
I almost expected to learn that “epic failure” was in fact a technical police term.
4. Police maybe don’t know colours either
I don’t even mean in the “we don’t see race” way here — although they are also arguing they had no idea of Borden’s race when they pursued her and presumably also when they pulled her out of the car and handcuffed and arrested her anyway — but quite literally they seem to be confused about the difference between silver and black (or maybe dark blue.)
I mean, I’ve had vision for a long time and that hasn’t been my experience of looking, but then I didn’t take a six-month course at police college so what do I know.
Here is Borden’s car, by the way:
Maybe they could add something like this to the training materials.
5. It’s possible cars have genders
There was a discussion Tuesday about whether calling the suspect “he” could actually refer to the car. Repeatedly in the recordings, the officers refer to their pursuit of “him.” Nasha Nijhawan, the lawyer representing officers Martin and Meisner, asked Cst. Nicholson whether “he” could in fact refer to the vehicle.
Nijhawan asked ,”when you say ‘he’ does it tell you the driver is male?” Nicholson responded, “No, it does not.” To clarify, by “he” there I mean the police officer, not his car or the table.
If we actually followed this line of logic, it would seem the police treat “male” as normal and neutral and refer to everything and everyone as potentially a man unless proven otherwise. No wonder Black people always “fit the description” if the description is just anything anyone feels like, really.
It’s like Schrodinger’s man: you don’t know who the suspect is until you open the door, so might as well throw the cuffs on everyone!
The hearing has been quite contentious, with some heated exchanges between Maxwell and Jean McKenna, the chair of the Police Review Board. Maxwell is interested in exploring the context in which policing takes place, which butts up against the narrow limitations of the hearing. Maxwell is becoming frustrated as many of his lines of questioning are shut down; he was chastised by McKenna Tuesday for laughing in exasperation.
Speaking of contentious, as Zane Woodford reported:
During a Board of Police Commissioners meeting on Monday, outgoing Halifax-district RCMP Chief Supt. Janis Gray teared up as she decried “cancel culture” and what she sees as “unwarranted and unfair criticism” of police.
I’m laughing at bureaucratic absurdity and the general farce of police complaint hearings in this piece, but Borden’s appeal is a chilling reminder of the power the police have to cancel us at any moment.
In her testimony on Monday, Borden described her terror as she was pulled over only months after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The police can literally kill people, and when they do, they don’t even lose their salaries until they are (very rarely) convicted. Police kill people and return to the job. They can commit misconduct that results in cases being thrown out four times in four years and still not lose their jobs. Police don’t get cancelled; Black people’s lives do.
Gray should have thrown in some commentary on “the woke” just to really fill up the bingo card.
But I can’t help but feel something more dangerous is being signaled. When both Gray and Kinsella lean on a public narrative about how activism is a danger to public safety, it seems logical that a crackdown on protesting is going to follow. And despite “cancel culture” proponents advocating for free speech, we have police leadership complaining about the rights of people to speak and protest against the police.
Kinsella is supposed to appear at Borden’s hearing on Thursday, a subpoena that, as Matthew Byard reported, he tried to dodge. I would suggest that behaving as though there is one law for the police, and another for the rest of us — we can’t simply ask Boards to quash orders that we don’t like — is a big reason why the general public is losing trust in police.
Robust public discourse is in fact central to a democracy, and it’s frightening that the police believe that those who carry the guns and embody the most force should be the most immune from criticism.
Thankfully, we have people like Borden willing to take their complaints public, and to endure these processes so we can experience exactly how policing actually works. For that, win or (likely) lose, we are grateful.