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June 23, 2020

It's not just Racism

Reuel S. Amdur

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The reaction to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has led to the opening of a serious discussion about police treatment of people of color. It has also raised the wider issue of prejudice and discrimination in society. Putting these matters on the agenda is extremely important but focus on color in police interactions is too narrow. The wider issue is that of abuse of power in general. You don't have to be black to suffer at the hands of police.

Abuse of authority and resort to violence are not restricted to police.  These are human tendencies.  However, professionalism means among other things that such tendencies are under control.  We have every right to expect professionalism from police.  In Ottawa they are paid very well, typically earning $100,000 a year or more.

One factor leading to abuse is frustration.  If the person interacting with police is resistant or uncooperative, abuse is a possible unprofessional reaction.  Sometimes such a reaction may be carefully planned.  Thus, in one Ottawa case, an officer was dealing with a seriously intoxicated woman.  He looked around to be sure that there were no witnesses and then slammed her against the police cruiser.  Unfortunately for him, there was a witness, with a smart phone.

Another part of the mix in police misbehaviour is that of the culture of the police.  That can be either positive or negative.  Let me take an example from one of my social work clients.  He was the accused person in a drug bust.  Police arrived at his apartment masked, with heavy boots, and submachine guns.  He was put face down on the floor and handcuffed behind his back.  When he replied to some question with some lip, he was kicked in the side.  (An x-ray report verified the impact on a lung.)  He was mistreated in other ways till the regular police came to take him into custody.  The behaviour of the masked invaders suddenly became very correct, cautioning him to be careful going down the stairs.  When put in the cruiser, he continued to be verbally noncompliant, but this officer simply sucked it up.  Professionalism.

I am aware of another incident, this one involving a black man in an encounter with an Ottawa policeman.  This time the officer was also black.  While we need not know the whole story, one aspect casts some light on police culture. Some rotten tricks of the trade form part of the culture.  After some verbal exchanges, the civilian was face down on the ground, in handcuffs.  The officer then started loudly calling out, “Stop resisting!”  He was simply lying there.  Such a cry by a police officer can be the prelude to assault.  “Stop hitting me!” is another lie that may be used. 

One final note regards ambiguous training.  If we don’t want it, we should not train for it.  The knee on the neck technique used on Floyd is one used by Israelis in encounters with Palestinians.  Minneapolis is one of many U.S. cities whose police forces have brought in Israeli trainers.  Some U.S. police officials have also gone directly to Israel.  We do not know that this particular technique was passed on in Minneapolis or that Chauvin, Floyd’s main assailant, received the training in its use either directly or indirectly from Israeli trainers.  In any case, police forces and those responsible for the forces need to be clear on what professionalism includes and what it excludes.  Training should not be ambiguous.

Yes, the issue of racial discrimination and prejudice need to be addressed.  These are important matters in Canada.  But when it comes to police behaviour, the issue goes beyond race to the wider issue of professionalism.  For example, part of professionalism involves what an officer does when another officer’s behaviour is unprofessional.  In the Floyd case, the other officers not only did not interfere in Chauvin’s behaviour.  They assisted him.

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