1. Mr. Blais goes to the Chamber of Commerce
Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais spoke at the Halifax Chamber of Commerce on Friday, and CBC provides us with text of the speech.
The speech takes place in the context of comments reported earlier in the day, where Blais argued that dropping crime rates across Canada do not take into account internet crime.
Statistics suggesting crime rates in Canada have been falling for decades may not tell the whole story when it comes to criminal wrongdoing, the chief of Halifax Regional Police says.
Jean-Michel Blais says there are indications that the nature of crime is changing in a way that is not reflected in traditional crime data.
“And this crime is not being committed by your neighbour, and probably not someone here in Nova Scotia or even in Canada,” he said in an interview.
“It’s being committed by somebody in a different country.”
Blais, who plans to explore the issue Friday in a speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, says traditional crimes appear to be “morphing” and migrating to criminal acts perpetrated online.
As a result, he says, crime probably hasn’t decreased as much as statistics might suggest.
This is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. While statistics consistently show that Canada’s crime rate is at its lowest since the 1969, public perception is that violent crime is at epidemic levels. As that article suggests, the sensationalist coverage of crimes by the media has led to belief that crime is increasing: “the narrative of violent crime — at least in the popular press — doesn’t have much to do with the crime reality. ”
Besides feeding the news cycle, the belief in violent crime also creates demand for the security industry. And of course, it also creates the demand for policing and well-funded police departments.
Police get to have surplus military tanks and to triple their armament of semi-automatic assault rifles based in this perception that there is a crime wave, we are in danger, and the police need to keep us safe. Rob Gordon writes:
…Roll forward to Remembrance Day 2015 at Halifax’s Grand Parade. Thousands of people witness police officers in tactical uniforms carrying the C8A2 carbines as they stroll through the respectful crowds gathered to honour Canada’s fallen soldiers. It’s a very public display of the new heavy weapons uniformed police officers are carrying in the trunks of their cars.
Putting these guns into the hands of the police comes at an odd time. Crime in the municipality has been decreasing steadily over the past decade, and crime across Canada is at its lowest level since 1969. From 2011 to 2014 there were only three instances where Halifax Regional Police fired a gun at a person in the line of duty. Most of the time, triggers were pulled to euthanize injured deer hit by trucks.
None of this has stopped HRP from joining the North American police arms race to acquire weapons usually found in a war zone.
Over the past 36 months, the department has tripled the number of heavy arms in its arsenal. Police say that equipment is necessary to prevent gun violence; to thwart potential terrorism; to stop another Moncton. Tactically it’s intimidation over de-escalation. It’s also an example of the gradual militarization of police across the continent that’s happened in places like Ferguson, Missouri and is happening now in Halifax.
Note that Gordon cites the fact that crime is at its lowest level since 1969 in his skepticism about whether the police constantly need millions of dollars in new weaponry — supposedly to stop bomb threats, and terrorism, but actually used to intimidate peaceful protestors. So when the Halifax police chief argues that those low crime rates aren’t actually the reality, he’s got a clear dog in the fight. If people start recognizing that crime isn’t at a crisis point, we might start suggesting things like putting the money we put into policing into housing, or drug treatment, or education, or jobs programs — things that would actually reduce crime even further — instead of into policing and prisons.
A few years ago, I attended a talk by a statistician at Dalhousie who proved that while the belief is that there’s a rise in crime, prisons become over-crowded, and then we have to build new prisons in response, in fact the numbers show that the state builds new prisons and then finds criminals to fill them. People who are against mass incarceration point to the drop in crime to push back against the building of new prisons to fill the supposed need to incarcerate ever-increasing numbers of people.
Blais points out that what happens in America has an impact here, and one of those impacts is also that Canadians largely think of incarceration as an American problem, which allows us to ignore our own abysmal prison statistics including the severe over-incarceration of Indigenous and Black people.
At the same time as crime is historically low, Nova Scotia courts are scrambling to meet the 18-month limit imposed by the Supreme Court of Canada ruling on matters in Provincial Court and 30 months for Superior Court cases, and remand times in the province are dangerously long. The overcrowded courts and jails suggest that we are making more and more criminals, denying bail more frequently, incarcerating people instead of seeking other solutions.
Nova Scotia is supposed to be rolling out restorative justice for adults in the province starting on November 1st (although the success of how restorative justice is applied at the youth level should be dampened by the statistics that show African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq youth remain the most highly incarcerated, suggesting these programs are not equitably applied and are not adequately addressing racism in the justice system.) Blais’ comments, then, seem like a cautionary note at a time where small steps are being made to address the problem of over-incarceration in the province.
The other thing that is interesting in Blais’ comments, particularly in light of his later speech at the Chamber of Commerce, is they actually do suggest something that is true about crime — that “street crime,” or crime committed by society’s “lower classes,” is seen as crime, while “white collar” crime committed by middle-class and upper-class people, particularly financial crimes, are not prosecuted. Take cigarettes from a gas station while suffering from addiction and you do time. Take over 100 thousand from an elderly woman’s estate, and you get to be the CAO of Charlottetown. I’m not sure Blais intended his comments to be taken this way given he was speaking to business people later, but they actually do suggest that while we are prosecuting poor people for minor crimes, crimes that take place online — like banking fraud! — are actually significant. It would have been hilarious if he got up in front of the business elite and started talking about how we need to take corruption and fraud more seriously and impose harsh criminal penalties, but unfortunately I think his comments were more directed at scams and cyber-bulling rather than corporate crime. Pretty much I think he’s more talking in coded ways about Nigerian scammers than about the social construction of crime and social class.
So with that said, the speech itself is both better than expected, but also still not great. On the positive side, I give him a solid “he’s trying” for acknowledging that social factors are important, that the police have to do work to gain the trust of communities, and that police shootings in the U.S. are significant to how people feel here as well. He’s addressing race relations and he is attempting to acknowledge that how Black people as well as other people feel about the police as a result should be taken seriously, and that the police must respond to these concerns. He also makes at least small gestures towards the responsibility police have to the people which is a tiny baby step towards acknowledging community-controlled policing models:
We owe it to those who pay our bills and support us to strive to develop those approaches and community relationships that will allow us to deal with the challenges that we face every single day, be they here in Halifax or elsewhere in the world, real or perceived.
But at the same time as he’s recognizing race, he is still framing “race relations” — aka racism — as a largely American problem that is being imported into our communities via social media. As if people in Nova Scotia are only concerned about police violence because we read it on Twitter after Ferguson, and not because our own family and friends and selves have repeated experienced incidents of racial profiling and brutality.
I’ve written before about the youth uprising against police injustice in Halifax in 1991. Rocky Jones’ Autobiography (review coming next week in time for the book launch next Saturday) deals heavily with racist policing and his attempts to set up community-controlled policing. Black people in this province have centuries of experiencing systemic injustice and racism right here. When we are responding to protests about police shootings in the US it is because those experiences validate our own — when people speak up against police brutality and the violence and trauma Black communities experience from policing, it matches our own. The implication that events in the U.S. are influencing us to perceive the police differently glosses over the histories of police violence against Black and Indigenous people right here at home.
As well, while police shootings aren’t a regular occurrence in Nova Scotia, other forms of violence and death at the hands of the justice system are. Deaths in prison and in police custody are tragically common, even though they are not receiving much attention from the media as a systemic problem.
Tim wrote yesterday about the beating and pepper-spraying of Matthew Hines in Dorchester Penitentiary leading to his death and the dismissal of a staff member. Camille Strickland-Murphy and Veronica Park recently died at Nova Institution. A man died in police custody in June. Clayton Cromwell died at Burnside in 2014. It’s common to react to the shootings in Canada by pointing out that “we don’t have the same problems here,” but that allows us to ignore the ways that our own inequalities exist.
Beyond that, in speaking about rebuilding trust with communities, Blais conveniently doesn’t talk about things like the frightening incompetence of the Halifax Regional Police in storing evidence, the recent failure of charges in the major (supposed) marijuana-ring bust, repeated incidents of excessive force and the justifications of that force in court. These “perceptions” aren’t just imported via the internet, they’re caused by police actions in our own communities. As long as the police continue to defend excessive force or racial profiling as “reasonable” practice, people aren’t going to trust the police.
As Dalhousie history professor Todd McCallum points out:
Also, there’s an imbalance built into Halifax Police Department social media. They tweet commemorative messages when officers in Dallas and elsewhere have been killed in explicit anti-police shoootings. But they don’t tweet regrets when officers do things illegal and otherwise questionable. To put it bluntly, where’s the “sorry for Philando” or “Tamir’s was a bad shooting?”
In the past, Halifax Police Officers — diversity officers even! — have gotten into fights on social media with Black men, with the officer defending police shootings and dismissing Black men’s concerns about them by accusing them of “armchair quarterbacking.” As long as the police continue to defend and not speak out about police violence, people are naturally going to feel that they support the same toxic culture that leads to these incidents in the US. If Blais wants to change public perception, then he needs to speak forcefully about racism in his own department and in the wider news, and make it clear that these policing practices are not acceptable, reasonable, or good policing.
The police chief talking to the Chamber of Commerce about race and racism in policing isn’t a minor thing — if nothing else, it shows the effectiveness Black Lives Matter and other activists have had in making racist policing a potent issue. When the Halifax police chief is talking about the power of Black activists and of Black words and Black rhetoric and Black perceptions, then that is significant. Black people, armed with nothing but Twitter or their bodies in the street, have succeeded in making their voices heard to the extent that a police chief has to talk about the effect they are having. That’s a powerful thing.
The Halifax chief of police talking to business leaders about police shootings and speaking at least in small ways about the responsibility police have to the people is downright revolutionary rhetoric for many in this province, I suppose. If the police chief acknowledges the need for transparency by the police, and recognizes the importance of responding to communities, then at least that’s an opening for people to pressure the police to be accountable to communities.
2. Fliss Cramman
The story of Fliss Cramman is appalling.
Cramman came from England to Canada when she was eight. She was sexually abused by her family and taken into care at 11. She was a ward of the state until she turned 18, and she assumed she was a Canadian citizen.
She recently served time at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S., for offering to traffic heroin. While in prison, she learned she was not a Canadian and would be deported to the U.K. on Nov. 4. She’s never met her relatives in England.
Cramman, who was too ill to attend her deportation hearing, remains “shackled to her bed.”
Dr. Alex Mitchell, Dartmouth General’s chief of surgery, said sending her to England with no money or support would be dangerous and “un-Canadian,” given her physical and mental illnesses.
“I know that she’ll get off the airplane in a jumpsuit, with no money, no phone, no contacts, no home, no food, in one of the world’s busiest airports. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the airport at Heathrow, in London, but it would be a terrible place for someone with mental illness to show up with nothing and be homeless with mental illness,” he told the board.
Deporting Cramman is “just simply wrong” and her situation should be considered an adult protection issue, he added.
The conditions Cramman is undergoing in the hospital are horrific. Shackling a dangerously ill woman to her bed is inhumane and there should be no place for that in Canada. Beyond the painful immediate details of her current situation, there are a number of systemic failures in this case.
I’ve heard from other advocates before about the problem of children in care not having their citizenship applied for. When children are taken into care, the state is supposed to be acting as their guardian and has the responsibility to protect them. Not applying for citizenship is a serious failure towards these children. This seems to be a systematic neglect.
The fact that there is neither a requirement to seek citizenship for children in care nor any sanctions for those who do not do so for these children is a huge injustice and violation of human rights. The most vulnerable children — those who are victimized by abuse, sometimes children who have been trafficked, children without family support, who may not speak English, and who have no advocates for them in a strange country — should be the people we have the most will to protect. That the people charged with caring for them are neglecting the most foundational right — the right of citizenship — is outrageous, and there should be outrage and immediate changes in policy to assure that children will not continue to be denied their rights.
The deportation of Cramman also raises questions of the legacy of Stephen Harper and the supposed changes the Liberals under Justin Trudeau are supposed to be making. Under Harper, the move to deport Canadian residents convicted of crimes intensified. While people may have imagined that deportation is reserved for serious crimes, terrorists, or repeat offenders, as Cramman’s case illustrates, first-time offenders and people convicted of non-violent crimes can also be deported. The standard for deporting people is apparently crimes that result in six months of imprisonment, with no requirement for this time to be even served consecutively. These are not serious criminals who are a danger to Canada. Cramman, a mentally ill woman who was poor and desperate, went online and offered to sell drugs for money. That’s it. She didn’t even deal the drugs. Her children certainly didn’t commit any crimes, and now they face growing up without any contact with their mother.
Trudeau should be reversing these changes to the Citizenship Act. And the media ought to be spending less time in gushing over how hot he is shirtless, and more time actually holding him accountable. Harper isn’t really gone if his policies still remain, and the Liberals aren’t really bringing any transformation to the country as long as they quietly maintain Harper’s policies while putting a fresh face on them and branding Trudeau as cool and cuddly.
Cramman was victimized here in Canada. It’s obvious that the sexual abuse she suffered in her family, and her subsequent experiences in foster care, led to her becoming incarcerated. As Darlene MacEchearn, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society in Cape Breton points out, women are overwhelmingly incarcerated for non-violent crimes, for addictions, and for mental illness. Over 80 per cent of women in custody are victims of sexual abuse. This makes this case also an issue of gender justice. When women are the fastest-growing population in prison, despite the vast majority of women not being convicted of violent crimes and being victims themselves, we should see Cramman’s case as an issue of women’s rights.
Cramman has been failed by systems repeatedly. And now she’s being thrown away like garbage, because she doesn’t have to be our problem anymore. So much for “it’s 2015!” and the supposed equality of women under Trudeau.
The Prismatic Arts Festival continues all weekend. There are free workshops, panels, and performances at the Central Library as well as performances at the Company House and at Pier 21. This year, the programming is all Women of Colour. Check out the program.
This Tuesday, September 27, all the candidates from District 8 have been invited to speak at “The Future of Halifax Begins in District 8” event at Dalhousie University. Tim will be moderating! 6pm in the Rowe Building, Room 1011.