Feature Illustration: Kate Solar

By Matteo Cimellaro

On October 2, Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly stands before a graduating police class for the second time in two days. He speaks to 50 freshly inaugurated officers. It is the most diverse graduating class in Ottawa Police history, with 50% of the 100 new officers identifying as a member of a racialized group, 40% as women, and nearly half as speaking French or another language. Chief Sloly applauds the officers as the “start of real change” for the service. He says the diverse officers will lead the Ottawa Police Service and City of Ottawa into a “better, brighter future.” 

It’s a sentiment you would hear from a convocation speech: inspirational and hopeful in a vague way. But the real change that Sloly should be addressing is the crisis in policing, as public awareness of the disproportionate effects policing has on Black and Indigenous peoples has hit a critical-point — from the death of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner globally, and the deaths of Anthony Aust, Abdi Abdirhaman, Soleiman Faqiri, and Greg Ritchie locally. (Many, many more could be listed, of course. A thorough local list has appeared in these pages as “A Timeline of Ottawa Police Violence.”) 

Is diversity the solution to this crisis? Can it create real change for a better, brighter future? What can diversity in policing actually accomplish? And what are the limitations of diversity? 

Is diversity in policing a solution? Illustration: Crystal Yung

If diversity is the solution, why isn’t the Ottawa Police Service on par with it yet? 

Let us say for the sake of argument that diversity could fundamentally change policing outcomes, such as lowering incidents of policing violence, including killings.

The Ottawa Police are already failing in this regard. Current demographics of the Ottawa Police Service lag behind Ottawa census rates. In 2018, the last year records are available, Statistics Canada numbers show that women only make up 22% of the Ottawa Police Service. 

The Ottawa Police also have a near 7% gap between racialized officers and racialized workers of the Ottawa labour force, according to a 2018 report by the Canadian Centre of Diversity and Inclusion. (Although after two years of diversified hiring, those numbers are increasing.)

Diversity hires need to increase for them to have a chance at positive outcomes. And the increase itself isn’t enough: the deployment of these hires need to be representative of the communities they police, which is not happening in Ottawa right now.

“We do not have the luxury of diversity right now within our organization to deploy in a manner that is reflected [of communities]. We’re still way behind in numbers,” Dave Zackrias, Ottawa Police Inspector for the Ottawa Police Service outreach recruiting team, told The Leveller.

Many racialized service members already question whether the Ottawa Police Service is committed to diversity. The Canadian Centre of Diversity and Inclusion census of the Ottawa Police revealed that disagreement with the statement “my organization is committed to and supportive of diversity” varied wildly according to the race of the respondent. While only 6% of Caucasians disagreed with this statement, 35-36% of Black and Asian members disagreed.

It’s hard to argue against diversity as a bad thing, but the argument about whether or not the OPS is adequately diversified has a limitation: the institution of policing itself.

Similarly, the evidence that diversity actually helps with outcomes — that racialized and women officers result in less incidents of violence, traffic stops, and arrests — is conflicting at best. In one study, reported in Science magazine, Black and Latino officers in Chicago did stop racialized civilians and arrested at a lower rate, and women officers used 20 to 30% less violence. However, due to varying factors in the study, some outcomes are marginal depending on the scenario. Another study from Policy Studies Journal, concluded that “more diversified departments do not have significantly lower levels of police-caused homicides.”

It’s hard to argue against diversity, like it would be some sort of bad thing. But the argument about whether or not the OPS is adequately diversified has a limitation: the institution of policing itself. An honest look at policing reveals that it is a systemically racist, violent, and unjust institution — from  its inception in the slavery of the Americas and the Carribean, to its historic and ongoing paramilitary role in colonial expansion and Indigenous genocide, to its present, where black Canadians are incarcerated over twice as much as their white counterparts and Indigenous peoples are incarcerated over five times the white population’s rate.

“Policing is fundamentally built and perpetuated by white supremacy and colonialism. It does not serve BIPOC communities to fall into a performative trap that says when a police force hires more BIPOC officers, this institution will change,” Vanessa Dorimain, co-chair of the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition, told The Leveller

A performative trap — hiring BIPOC officers does not equal institutional change. Illustration: Crystal Yung

An internal culture not ready to change 

Two recent scandals reveal an internal culture among Ottawa Police where racist reasoning and callous behaviour can fester. 

In Spring 2021, an Ottawa police officer was caught on video voicing beliefs similar to “white replacement theory,” a white-supremacist conspiracy theory that thinks racialized citizens are a threat to eliminate the country’s dominant caucasian culture. Then, in August 2021, an Ottawa Police officer resigned after public allegations of misconduct surfaced — the officer had been making mocking images and videos of people living with mental illness that he circulated for the amusement of other police officers.

These two incidents point to a larger culture of resistance to progressive change in the police service. Following the 2017 report on the lack of diversity, service members voiced their apprehension with the goal of hiring diversified members. Out of 184 comments on the report, nearly a quarter were in opposition to diversifying hires, according to CBC News.

“Instead of jumping on the transparency and PC bandwagon, OPS should lead from the front and direct promotions and transfers to the employees that deserve them. OPS will eventually be brought into disrepute by doing what they are doing now,” one officer wrote.

As a member of the Ottawa Police Service outreach recruiting team, Zackaris believes there are members of the OPS that are resistant to change — but says that the service is no different to other organizations when implementing that change. 

“What we want to do is bring equity,” Zackaris said. 

But even with an emphasis on equity from leadership in the Ottawa Police, the question remains: will the Ottawa Police force be able to metamorphose itself into something that won’t disproportionately criminalize and kill racialized community members?  

Walking the thin blue line is not a solution for mental health emergencies. Illustration: Crystal Yung

The Police Legitimacy Fallacy 

Zackaris states that the Ottawa Police force is striving for “police legitimacy.” Legitimacy is “a core objective of policing in its own right,” as the RAND Corporation puts it in their Better Policing Toolkit, since people are more likely to obey the law and cooperate with police if they see police power as legitimate. They will even “accept the use of state coercion to enforce laws that they do not necessarily agree with and may even think quite unjust,” according to Jack Balkin, a law professor RAND quotes approvingly. 

Of course, the Ottawa Police Service’s legitimacy has been corroded following the death of Aust, Ritchie, and the acquittal of the officer who killed Abdi in 2020, as well as the general rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Critics argue that positioning brown skins under blue masks will not legitimize the Ottawa Police because racialized officers have to uphold an institution that is unjustly structured. 

“Diverse hiring creates more violence — not just to those who face oppression by the police force in our communities, but also with the BIPOC folks having to assimilate within a system that does not serve to protect them. It exploits their existence to uphold the system,” Dorimain said.

Police exist as a force in our society to criminalize whatever the state determines to be harmful, — often any activity that fails to respect private property or that disrupts the accumulation of wealth or existing power structures. That includes anything from “disturbing the peace,” shoplifting, or holding a weapon with thoughts of self-harm. 

Without this criminalizing role, there would be no need for policing as it exists now. The current functions of policing would be delivered differently depending on need, perhaps as a kind of first responder in moments of crisis. And the performance of these functions would be reorganized: as a mental health provider who cares for those living with mental illness at a time of vulnerability, as an intervenor to defuse violent altercations, a social worker with a personal relationship with the so-called criminal, or as a facilitator in a circle of reconciliation. 

Instead, police officers today respond to these real needs for mental health support, conflict mediation, or intergenerational healing with violence, criminalization, or some other often ignorant and unhelpful action. They’re asked to do things that they are not equipped to do. And with diverse hiring, racialized officers will carry out these duties against vulnerable and marginalized community members, leaving them vulnerable to make a critical mistake in situations where they don’t belong.

Policing doesn’t have to function in the roles that we have inherited from the past. Policing serves a function in our society, a function handed down from prior political systems. What the city needs is a radical imagination that goes beyond diversity — that goes beyond policing, in fact. 

We need non-violent solutions to the expansive functions of policing. We need emergency mental health response units, more highly trained social workers, and strong community funding for Indigenous communities to heal. We need a radical vision for a justice system centered on care — not one dependent on a thin blue line. 

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