By Lily Xia

After much pressure from community organizations and city councillors, neighbourhood police officers will be returning to Ottawa in 2019. However,  it is questionable whether recommitting to neighbourhood and community policing would be the best option for this city.

In its 2016 annual report, the Ottawa Police Service described how it was dismantling the neighbourhood policing model and remobilizing all neighbourhood police officers and some community police officers into front-line operations.

Community policing is not an alternative to traditional policing, but an expansion of policing into the everyday life

These neighbourhood and community police officers were geographically-assigned police officers, who interacted with community members day-to-day – as opposed to front-line operations, who respond to 911 calls around the city.

Both neighbourhood and community police officers fall under a movement towards community policing that has been widespread in the last few decades. In Ontario, they are directed by the Ontario Mobilization and Engagement Model of Community Policing created by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police in 2012.

Advocates for community policing have argued that it is a better alternative to reactive and top-down policing. However, community policing is not an alternative to traditional policing, but an expansion of policing into the everyday life.  

Community policing is better compared to social services and programming that alleviate poverty, provide support, and build community. Funds to expand community policing may be better allocated to other parts of the public sector.

In Ottawa, Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans, who serves as the new Ottawa Police Services Board chair, was a vocal advocate for community policing and has pushed for more police funding.

Similarly, Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper and Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury has also publicly supported the return of neighbourhood police officers.

Leiper stated on Twitter that the “(partial) return of NHOs is a critical part of addressing persistent issues in neighbourhoods. Geographic assignment is important.”

Proponents of community policing such as Deans, Leiper and Fleury argue that the model allowed for police to build trust with community members and deal with non-urgent crime and social disorder.

Hamid Mousa, the community development co-ordinator for the Ottawa Police Service, stated that, “Community Policing relies on a more proactive form of finding solutions, from officers who have become familiar to locals over a period of time.”

He also stated that the community policing model “shifts the focus from reaction to action. The concepts of community-oriented policing rely on two core components: community partnerships and problem-solving.”

The use of the word ‘proactive’ and the idea that community policing shifts police work from ‘reaction to action’ were common selling points for the model. Ideally, community policing ‘cleans up’ neighbourhoods and prevents crimes before they begin.

Community policing focuses on preventing social disorder and low-level crime, including vandalism and decay that proponents argue weakens informal social control.
Photo: Lily Xia

However, that is not always the case. Community policing has come under scrutiny for targeting racialized individuals, producing exclusion and being performative.

Researchers have found that proactive and action-oriented policing has negative outcomes for minority youths living in neighbourhoods viewed as unsafe. These neighbourhoods, seen as hotspots of crime, are subject to intensive and intrusive community policing. The result for many of these youths were feelings of being unfairly targeted, surveilled and dehumanized.

In their review of academic literature on minority youths’ police encounters, researchers Anne Nordberg, Marcus R. Crawford, Regina T. Paetorius, and Schnavia Smith Hatcher found that minority youths’ experiences during police encounters are “overwhelmingly negative.” Results of these studies “point to minority youths’ experiences as dangerous, controlling, and prejudiced. Further, youth experienced little in the way of service or protection.”

In Canada, academics Naomi Nichols and Jessica Braimoh found that “institutionally co-ordinated links between policing and social housing produce street-involvement, street-homelessness, and a profound sense of exclusions” among minority youths living in Neighbourhood Improvement Areas in Toronto.

Moreover, in a study on community policing in Ottawa, Sulaimon Giwa, assistant professor of social work at Memorial University, questioned whether communities are able to meaningfully influence policy and practice in community policing models. If not, then community policing does not create change that empower residents to succeed.

Instead, community policing serves as a tool to market the police as friendly and approachable. Giwa also argued that the power differential between the police and the community members may result in further negative relations.

“Application of community policing as a means of improving police relations with racialized minorities and communities is disingenuous,” Giwa stated, “as its principles do not address the complexity of historical and colonial attitudes toward disenfranchised, racialized populations.”

“By glossing over embedded racial and ethnic inequities, community policing may be contributing to systems of dominance and hegemony in policing rather than working toward their eradication.”

In the end, community policing is still policing. It focuses on reporting and arrests and is dependent on officer discretion.

Criminology professor, Glen A. Ishoy, found in a study on police discretion that officers were often more concerned with supervisor expectations and subjective norms within the policing system than community expectations. This finding explains why neighbourhood policing ultimately fosters exclusion and reinforces inequality.

Ultimately, community building is important work that needs to be done. However, the question is, should this work be done by the police? Community building services may be better lead by individuals and organizations that do not operate under the umbrella of policing. They do not have a conflict of interest, allowing them to put the needs of the community first – as opposed to the regulations and expectations of the police force.

An expansion of policing into community spaces can negatively impact those who are the most marginalized. When the police enter everyday lives through community policing, we must ask ourselves: who is being watched and policed, and who is being protected?

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