When I went to the community meeting at the North Branch Library about police street checks, I wasn’t expecting much. I assumed Chief Jean-Michel Blais would say he was listening to the community, he understood our concerns, that they were implementing a number of recommendations — the usual PR type responses.
Instead, speaking in the heart of a Black community that has been repeatedly traumatized by police, Blais seemed unprepared for and rattled by the depth of experience, anger, pain, and resistance expressed by the audience. And in this environment, Blais seemingly became unguarded, and whatever polish he normally has in public slipped away. What followed was extraordinary: at times hostile, absurd, confusing, and revealing.
By the end of the meeting, some members of the community were calling for the police chief to resign. As one community member phrased it, “Either he is incompetent, and he has to go, or he is willfully ignorant, in which case he also has to go.” This demand was also made during the meeting, as members of the community demanded of the chief that either he end the checks, or resign.
Whereas in the U.S. the Ferguson Effect refers to the reticence that some police officers may have dealing with certain citizens for fear of being labelled a racist, for me the Ferguson Effect essentially means that what happens there matters here.
That some event, as isolated as it is to a specific faraway place, has a direct or indirect correlation here in Halifax — be it a visceral reaction, a call to action or a genuine desire to make changes. These events oftentimes affect the trust that we, as a police service, have or don’t have.
If Blais in front of the Chamber of Commerce understood the impact Black Lives Matter and other community organizing against police violence has had on Black communities, it was like he forgot that very lesson sitting in front of people who have suffered generational abuse by the police. In other words, this was not a group of people who were going to be fobbed off with some bullshit.
In that speech, Blais also said:
For us to enforce that public peace, the challenge for us here in Halifax, in Nova Scotia and in Canada is to collectively get to know one another. We also recognize that there is no point in being economically strong if we are socially weak.
That is the goal of HRP’s strategic plan and the way that we work and will continue to work together. We want to be intelligence-led, problem-solving community contributors.
We do that by getting to know our communities and the people in them. And having them get to know us. Through these connections we build and maintain the confidence and trust of the people we work for every day.
“Getting to know our communities” in retrospect seems like a jaunty euphemism for “street checking Black people at three times the rate of their population.” And “having them get to know us” meaning, “overpolicing their communities.” The contrast between Chamber of Commerce Blais, and the Blais who at times seemed angry or frustrated with the Black community for rejecting being racistly policed, is notable.
An underlying thread to both a number of Blais’ comments, particularly his comments on “perception,” and also the reporting of this meeting in the media, has been to both explicitly and subtly paint the Black community as emotional and irrational (having a “visceral reaction” apparently being opposed to a “genuine desire to make change.”) As Professor Isaac Saney pointed out in the question period, in suggesting that the Black community merely has the “perception” of being treated unfairly when the reality of evidence shows that statistically Black people are being hugely disproportionately policed, the implication is that the Black community is making a bunch of hysterical and unfounded complaints.
Throughout the meeting, however, it was Black questioners who were prepared with critiques, research, studies, and analysis, much of which the chief seemed either unfamiliar with or unable to answer. In reporting the meeting as “heated” as though the Black community simply reacted without provocation, subtle anti-Black narratives are employed that attempt to paint the police/white society as objective, rational, analytical, and thoughtful, and the Black community as emotional, mistaken, and unreasonable – in another word, uncivilized. And of course, this framing of Black emotion plays into ideas of Black people as more criminal, more pathological, and more threatening — the very stereotypes that justify racial profiling in the first place.
It was in fact much of this narrative that the Black community pushed back on throughout the night — where the chief tried to continually frame checks as merely an act of “gathering intelligence,” the Black community rightly repeatedly named this practice as racism and refused to have our experiences reframed. And in experiencing this push back, it was the chief who seemed to become unglued, leading to a number of revealing exchanges that demonstrated the depths of systemic racism within the Halifax Regional Police department.
Thank you to Robert Devet, both for the transcript and audio of the night, and for the excellent article focusing on the chief’s responses.
Here, in no order, are the most startling, absurd, confusing, outrageous, and enraging responses of the night.
1. What is institutional racism?
This exchange was recorded in The Coast:
“Do you deny institutional racism exists!?” shouts a man, rising to his feet, to cheers and rumblings in a crowd of more than 70 people. There’s a pause. Then Halifax Regional Police chief Jean-Michel Blais responds:
“What do you mean by institutional racism?”
Given that Blais spent the night talking up how the police do “diversity training” and education, this should raise the question of what exactly they are learning if the chief has never heard the term “institutional racism” before. This term was quickly defined for him by community members who hadn’t been to the police academy, let alone spent years being expertly trained, yet were somehow conversant in basic facts.
The chief eventually responded that he believes racism exists. But, as he has before, he refused to identify systemic racism as a problem within the HRP, or that street checks are a racist practice based on racial bias, stereotypes, and criminalization.
Based on his responses throughout the night, Blais seems to see the police as passive actors in society. He cannot connect policing and the ways it criminalizes Black people and community to the “social problems” he cites. For example, when asked if the results of police checks outweigh its traumatic impact on the Black community, he responded:
I need to know more about what we mean with ‘effects’,” he added. “I just wonder if the issues and results that are stated are not the result of street checks but are the results of other issues that are in our society today, poverty, abuse, income gaps that occurred, pollution, societal challenges and inequities that are out there, the lack of opportunities that certain segments have. Of course the whole issue around criminality.”
Blais cannot see that criminalizing people so that Black people suffer from more fines, more incarceration, longer sentences, difficulty finding employment due to police records, impoverishment of families dealing with incarceration, removal of parents from families, etc. have anything to do with the police practices that directly contribute to these conditions. When Black people are forced into poor communities that are then overpoliced, ensuring that Black people can’t get the employment and resources to move from those overpoliced communities, that directly results in the poverty, income gaps, and inequities he cites.
Does he think that environmental racism — the pollution of Black communities — is separate from the ideology that sees Black communities as criminal and Black people as less than human? The same society that sees Black communities as a dumping ground also sees those communities as disposable precisely because Black people are seen as deserving of less rights. That’s why there’s a connection between communities that are polluted and communities that are policed.
Policing enforces the very narratives about degraded Blackness that lead to people refusing to hire Black people, the expulsion and marginalization of Black children in schools, the difficulty for Black people in getting loans and mortgages, etc. Racist policing sends a public message consistently that Black people are pathologically violent and that we deserve to be poor because we are the ones creating our own problems through our bad behaviour.
Apparently, these problems just happen somehow, and the police have nothing to do with it. We don’t have lack of opportunities because we have police records caused by police wrongfully charging us, we maybe just breathed in some smog and it made us poor or something.
I will also point out that it’s pretty ballsy to tell Black people confronting you with the trauma of police checks that maybe we’re mistaken, and what we’re actually probably upset about is pollution.
Racism is both overt and covert, and it takes three closely related forms: individual, institutional, and systemic. Individual racism consists of overt acts by individuals that cause death, injury, destruction of property, or denial of services or opportunity. Institutional racism is more subtle but no less destructive. Institutional racism involves polices, practices, and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities’ access to and quality of goods, services, and opportunities. Systemic racism is the basis of individual and institutional racism; it is the value system that is embedded in a society that supports and allows discrimination.
2. Victim Blaming
This leads us to a major feature of the question and answer period, which was the both subtle and explicit blaming of Black people for the conditions of our oppression.
The most shocking example of this was when, in response to being challenged about the police as agents of “white terror,” he responded by saying:
“Also, you speak about police killings. Last year in Halifax we had 12 homicides. Seven of them were Black males. Are you saying that my police officers are responsible for these deaths?”
It was like he thought he was on Fox News for a minute there. “What about Black on Black crime?” is the rallying cry of racists everywhere who deny and derail discussions about police brutality by claiming that “Black people kill each other.” C’mon, chief.
Also, yes, one could argue that the police do bear some responsibility for these deaths, which take place in the context of a racist society. As Afua Cooper pointed out:
It takes courage and commitment to address the root cause of the violence in the Halifax black community. And there are several causes.
Black Haligonians have difficulty finding a job, even a cleaning job. Even black youths with diplomas find it difficult to gain employment. I teach African Nova Scotian undergraduate students and many of them cannot even find a summer job.
Jobs are difficult to come by, and it seems to me that those that are available are reserved for whites. Just ask the premier why so many immigrants of all stripes leave the province.
Black people in Nova Scotia, especially young black males, are massively disenfranchised. They have very little access to basic opportunities. The mayor knows it, the premier knows it, the black communities know it.
As was detailed for the chief throughout the night, when people and communities have experienced repeated trauma at the hands of the police, that has an alienating effect. As Lana Maclean pointed out, when children are being stopped at age eight on their bikes, then at age 16 when they get a licence, when parents have to have “the talk” with children about the police, and if youth are being stopped and questioned, that sends the message to them they don’t belong in society and that they have no value.
“If you’re treating me like a criminal … then I may as well behave like one. And those behaviours are seen as being oppositional, when in fact, some of them are protective.”
And when fear and mistrust of the police is created by racist and brutal policing, young people can’t call the police when they’re involved in conflict, which can lead to more violence as conflict escalates.
As I pointed out in question period, the Black community has had meetings about the shootings. This meeting was about the police, and to attempt to derail discussions of police checks by bringing up the shootings of Black men — as if people in the room weren’t family members, neighbours, and friends of those victims — was incredibly disrespectful.
Telling Black people that we shoot each other during a discussion of racist police practices is the moral and rhetorical equivalent of telling victims of sexual assault that they shouldn’t have been drinking.
Also in the vein of victim blaming was the suggestion that Black people are just being irrational and “perceiving” unfair police checks. As was pointed out repeatedly throughout the night, the police force’s own data confirms that Black people are being hugely over-checked. For the chief to keep insisting that maybe Black people are just, despite the best efforts of the police, determined to see these interactions as “unfair” and that nothing will convince us otherwise is insulting.
“I also recognize that no amount of police training, targeted recruiting, policy developments, statistics or legal arguments can make a person believe they were treated fairly if they subjectively think that they can never be treated fairly.”
Except the statistics actually show we are being treated unfairly. It’s like the only problem with police checks is Black people’s unreasonable response to our benevolent police who are only trying to help us deal with pollution, etc.
“Mistrust goes both ways,” but you know what doesn’t go both ways? The authority of one population to stop, arrest, charge, and use force on others. Cops have that power. We don’t.
3. What is crime anyway?
As Ifo Ikede pointed out:
You need to check yourself. Because what we are dealing with is a history — not just an ancient history, but a present history — of direct oppression. We have anti-terrorism registration in this country. The police force in Canada are currently acting as a terrorist force for Black and Indigenous communities. So let’s deal with that reality.
Now, I’m really, really insulted at the fact that you’re talking about perception when the data from your own police force…shows that they’re over-attacking us, that we’re over-represented.
So I have a simple question for you…: When will the police union actually take an active anti-racism and an active anti-white terrorism stance? Because other associations have codes of conduct. And when a member of an association violates that code of conduct, they usually get censured. Like when a doctor molests somebody, the doctors’ union will say, this is against our rules and this person’s licence needs to be revoked.
We are yet to see any police commission say, including the one in Halifax, that someone who is overtly racist, who is found guilty of racism, has violated the common charter of the police union. Which means that the police union, by omission, is stating that they are in full support of white terrorism on us. So when you guys start saying that, we’ll start to take you seriously.
I’m going to end with this. You claim that you go to where the most crime is. The biggest crime that happened was in 2008 when there was a financial crisis. So can you explain to me why there are no police community checks in all the rich white neighbourhoods where all the bankers are?
This was the first question, and needless to say, it was not received with equanimity by the police chief. This is what led to him telling us we shoot each other anyway.
4. Circular Logic
Throughout the night, the police chief talked up the “intelligence-based” system the police use to super technologically direct their crime fighting. According to the chief, they have nine analysts who take the data from police checks, and use it to create maps of crime that are then used to concentrate policing.
In other words, the police use racist police checks to disproportionately target Black people and communities. Because Black people are being checked more, police are more likely to encounter Black people committing crimes. This “evidence” is then used to “prove” that Black communities are more criminal, which therefore means that Black communities require more policing, which means with more police Black people are subject to more police checks, leading to more “evidence” of crime, and so on to infinity.
The police chief could not see how this “intelligence” is flawed, based on racial profiling and bias, and is used to criminalize Black communities further.
5. Fun with numbers
The police chief is reported as saying that “91 per cent of [street checks] can be linked to individuals who have been charged with a crime.”
In fact, what he said was that 91 per cent of checks are people who have been charged with a crime, or associated with people who have been charged. This is much different. As one of the lawyers in the room pointed out, “I worked for Legal Aid. I’m associated with people who have been charged with crimes, so I would go into that basket.”
And of course, when communities are being over-policed and Black people are disproportionately coming in contact with police, more people are going to be charged and end up with records. The chief is trying to imply that they only stop criminals or gang members, but when you criminalize Black people, that means everyone in the community has family, friends, neighbours, school mates, etc. who have records. We come from small communities — is it a surprise that most Black people you stop “are associated” with people with criminal charges?
At another point in the night, the chief got frustrated and told us, “you know who 82 per cent of our checks are? White people.” He then revealed that 88 per cent of the population is white, prompting the audience to point out to him that means that white people are being under-policed. The lawyer beside me muttered, “good effort there though, bud.” I replied, “airball.”
Numbers not addressed by the police chief: what percentage of officers accused of violence or misconduct actually get convicted or removed from the police force, or the rate of acquittal in cases brought to SIRT. When Blais was questioned by The Coast about “epidemic” levels of domestic violence among the police, he suggested that:
“If we expect our police officers to be fair, equal and unbiased with members of the general public out there, then when [the officers] get in trouble, and they have problems then they too have to be treated with fairness and intellectual rigour.”
In other words, cops who are violent should be treated with compassion, but Black people innocently going about our business should be subject to police checks. We have to be “fair” to cops beating their wives, but Black people don’t deserve any justice.
Also, despite his assertion that he understands racism because he speaks at Cornwallis Baptist Church, apparently he missed the call-and-response traditions of the Black community while he was in church, leading him to such missteps as asking a rhetorical question about what level of street checks would be acceptable, only to be met with the audience promptly responding, “zero.” It was like he thought we wouldn’t be able to answer that.
6. Know your rights
As Robert Devet notes, an early exchange “set the pattern” for the meeting.
Blais explained that there are constraints around what a police officer is allowed to ask a citizen. “For instance,” he said, there is a notion that police is able to seize a cell phone to see a video. We can’t seize anything without a warrant.”
“But that is exactly what they (police) tell you,” somebody responded.
Blais; “ I recognize that, and they (police) are wrong.”
Audience: “Well, they shouldn’t be telling people that they are allowed to do this. They are supposed to uphold the law. How can they tell you, yes, we are allowed?”
Blais. “This is something we are working on as part of our training. To let our people know you cannot seize it.”
Audience: “This has been going on for years. It’s not like it’s new.”
Given that during the tattoo parlour stand-off, for example, the police threatened people filming the events and people had the impression they could be charged for filming, it’s quite clear the police openly suppress filming their activities and intimidate people into not doing so. I mean, sure, you can film the police, and then they smash your phone while claiming you were resisting arrest, seize your phone for “evidence” for two years, and charge you with assaulting an officer. Good advice.
We were also informed at the meeting that we have the right to refuse a check. Sure. And then when you get shot walking away, all the white people will talk about how you should “just obey the police” and “this isn’t the time to demand your rights” and “if they had nothing to hide, they wouldn’t object to being checked,” and “what do you expect if you act like that,” so again, no thanks.
Also, if the police are so receptive to us filming them and refusing checks, maybe that information should be pinned somewhere on their social media, and they should hand out cards with your rights prior to every stop. If the police were actually interested in respecting rights, they would also be focused on educating the public about those rights, and in having zero tolerance for officers who violate those rights. Think about that for a minute. The police chief admits he knows his officers are either completely ignorant of people’s rights or lying to them about it, and his response is “we’re working on it in training” and not, “the next person who does that gets fired.” That shows exactly how seriously these rights are taken.
7. Ferguson, wtf?
I have no idea where the chief was going with this:
…[L]et me give you an example of a community where it [police checks] is 1.3 per cent. If you are in a community where it is 1.3 times getting checked more so than being white. Because here, according to our statistics it is three times. That community is Ferguson, Missouri. They have 63 per cent African American, and 86 per cent of checks are Blacks. That comes down to 1.3 per cent.
I think what he was trying to say here is that there isn’t a relationship between street checks and police shootings, that we shouldn’t focus on the number being three times more because Ferguson has a lower percentage of street checks and yet they have a violent shooting. Or perhaps he’s trying to imply that higher street checks might actually prevent police violence.
Either way, it’s well known that one of the aggravating factors in Ferguson was the depth of police harassment of the community. This article from the Guardian explains:
The public was shocked to learn that despite its black majority, only 6 per cent of the police force is black. At the time of Brown’s killing in August, the number of black attorneys in Ferguson was zero, according to the Missouri bar, which listed only four white attorneys for the city’s 14,000 black residents, who were issued 92 per cent of the city’s warrants and received 95 per cent of two-day or more jail sentences…
…The Justice Department’s lengthy March report on Ferguson linked a lack of legal representation with police misconduct. In blistering detail, the report demonstrated how the police and courts, whose employees have a proclivity for racist jokes and discriminatory behavior, employ tactics that include harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail to extort money from black residents.
By disproportionately targeting African Americans and routinely violating their constitutional rights, Ferguson created the predatory environment in which a jaywalking stop by police officer Darren Wilson could escalate to Brown’s death.
This CNN report elaborates on the statistics in Ferguson:
Among the findings, reviewed by CNN: from 2012 to 2014, 85 per cent of people subject to vehicle stops by Ferguson police were African-American; 90 per cent of those who received citations were black; and 93 per cent of people arrested were black. This while 67 per cent of the Ferguson population is black.
In 88 per cent of the cases in which police the Ferguson police reported using force, it was against African-Americans. During the period 2012-2014 black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during traffic stops, but 26% less likely to be found in possession of contraband.
Blacks were disproportionately more likely to be cited for minor infractions: 95 per cent of tickets for “manner of walking in roadway,” essentially jaywalking, were against African Americans. Also, 94 per cent of all “failure to comply” charges were filed against black people.
What is shown in Ferguson is precisely how police harassment is used to terrorize and exploit communities. Rather than some kind of justification for the behaviour of the Halifax Regional Police, the findings from Ferguson show that police checks create an environment where Black people are unjustly criminalized — and where the police profit off this injustice. Ferguson shows us exactly why police checks should be eliminated as a practice.
Alex Tabarrok, a professor of economics at George Mason University, says ArchCity’s findings are the result of the city police’s tendency to make “bullshit arrests.”
In a blog for Marginal Revolution he writes, in part: “You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and three warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant ‘low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.’”
Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum asks a question about the system that has yet to be answered: “Why?”
“Why are police departments allowed to fund themselves with ticket revenue in the first place? Or red light camera revenue,” writes Drum. “Or civil asset forfeiture revenue. Or any other kind of revenue that provides them with an incentive to be as hardass as possible.”
8. We’re not perfect
As Robert Devet reported, Lynn Jones questioned the complaints process, which was described in handouts provided to the audience:
Lynn Jones asked about the many administrative hoops you have to jump through to file a complaint and escalate it up through the hierarchy.
“I am just flabbergasted that someone who got subjected to something that happened on say Gottingen Street here would go through such a system to get justice. My question, do you feel that this is acceptable in terms of addressing this issue, and what alternative do you have for fixing this system?”
“This is a multi-layered challenge,” said Blais. “It needs to be discussed in terms of police, in terms of everything else that is around it. In terms of the actual process, there are people who do go ahead, who do lay complaints, and they are mediated up from the beginning. It’s not a perfect system. You live in a society and it is the system that we have chosen. It’s not perfect.”
Response from the audience: WE didn’t choose this system.
One of the definitions of “institutional racism” is “racial discrimination that derives from individuals carrying out the dictates of others who are prejudiced or of a prejudiced society.” In other words, claiming that society is not perfect and there’s nothing we can do anyway is institutional racism.
9. What happens to our data?
The police chief didn’t seem to find it disturbing that all the data from the police checks is entered into their intelligence system and used to determine how they police. He talked about their “nine analysts” and how they “put pins in the map” based on the information they get from street checks.
I actually questioned that, asking if he was saying that all our data from these stops is entered into their systems and preserved. He responded that it’s no different from the information you give when getting a driver’s licence, which, no. We voluntarily go to get a licence and we can choose to opt out of doing so. Privacy lawyers have long been concerned about the violations of civil liberties associated with the use of data from street checks:
[Privacy lawyer David Fraser] also sees problems from a privacy standpoint: wondering what information is getting collected and where it’s going.
“Every one of these interactions is a collection of personal information against somebody’s will and without their true, willing consent,” he says.
Blais seemed cavalier about this use of our information in their “intelligence.”
10. No on everything
Blais was asked a series of yes or no questions about whether he supported initiatives aimed at reducing racism.
Do you support an advocate who would advocate on behalf of people [subjected to unjust police checks]?
In some jurisdictions, police are required to give a rights card to a person they are having an interaction with…they’re also required to give their business card. Do you support that?
Do you support the changes that are being implemented in Ontario as a result as the kerfuffle over carding?
Do you support body cameras? I think I read in the press that you were pretty cold on them.
Also, I don’t know what kind of racial bias testing you do. I suspect it’s not quite adequate or the frequency of it is not sufficient. Do you support periodic…with a frequency that’s less than 12 months…not diversity training, which I agree…is a waste of time, but tools that ferret out racial bias and apply these tools to police officers.
Lastly, the research supports that in communities that feel they are engaged and trusting with the police, it’s not community policing that is the result of that, it’s a direct function of the power of Police Review Boards, not community policing, which as currently constituted really doesn’t mean anything.
The chief was pretty much no on everything, and wasn’t familiar with the research on police boards. So basically, every recommendation people have found effective in changing the “not perfect” system is rejected by the chief.
11. Good point
Mark Daye pointed out:
The question that I have is, diversity training is not working. The concept of giving a full-grown, intelligent adult training…most adults in this world, in this society go through this society being taught how to respect and treat people. But for some reason, police officers are…allowed to have diversity training. Training on minorities. Training on other human beings. Which is dehumanizing. You don’t need any training to teach you how to treat another human being. If you need training on how to treat human beings, in my opinion that should disqualify you.
Again, from Robert Devet:
“There are certain inalienable rights we have in our society. One of them is to be free of being a victim of a crime. That is the main overriding concern we have as police,” Blais said.
Actually, in section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:
Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
See that bit about race in there? That actually is a right in Canadian society, to be free of racial discrimination.
If I had to summarize the whole evening (after all that), I’d say my main impression is that the police chief, confronted with a room of people that wasn’t having any of it got shook and, to use the colloquial expression, “showed his ass.”
From a PR point of view, the meeting was a disaster as the chief became combative with the audience, frequently made little sense, and gave vague and confusing answers, or non-answers that dodged the issues raised by the audience. Also, more than two months past the news of the checks breaking, it was strange he wasn’t more prepared with serious recommendations, plans, or policy changes.
From the point of view, however, of understanding how racism is embedded in police practices, and how people who work within institutions and systems blindly defend those institutions, it was instructive.
As people have frequently reminded me, Blais isn’t a bad guy. I’ve met him a few times and he’s always been civil and respectful. But systemic racism isn’t about whether people are nice or not, or whether we think they’re good people. It’s about how racist policies, practices, and ideologies are embedded in our society — ideologies “we” didn’t choose as Black people, but are subjected to daily. And without recognizing how racism is ingrained in our society, and reflected in practices like police checks, we can’t “solve” racism simply by “getting to know each other” or by good intentions.
And from the point of view of a community organizing against state oppression, the resistance in the room and the refusal to knuckle under showed that despite generations of facing “white terror,” Black people are still fighting back.