Racism isn’t new, and neither is violence by police officers. But both were highlighted viscerally and brutally in 2020 when George Floyd, a Black man, was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police.
The wave of global protests inspired by Floyd’s death reached Edmonton in June — at least 9,000 rallied to condemn systemic racism and police violence. Black Lives Matter Edmonton was revived and demanded the city divest from the police. Council clawed back $11 million of a planned increase but didn’t reduce the police budget.
With results expected from council’s community-led task force early this year and from the Police Act review this fall, as well as return of BLM’s presence locally, Edmontonians can expect to see shifts in policing and hear more calls for change in 2021.
Racism, police misconduct in Alberta
Alberta has a long history of racism and extremism . Former Edmonton mayor Daniel Knott won the election in 1931 with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, and there were around 50 chapters of the hate group in the province around that time.
More recently, three Black, Muslim women were attacked by members of the public near Southgate Centre within the span of a week in December.
Videos of an Edmonton police officer kneeling on a man’s neck and the violent arrest of Chief Allan Adam in Fort McMurray, as well as a racist poster in the Edmonton canine unit — all of which happened last year as well — show both racism and police violence are problems Alberta still has to reckon with.
Shima Robinson, a spokeswoman for BLM Edmonton , says an absolute “cultural overhaul” is needed.
“The facts are that Black people are still being assaulted in this city … and that’s by other citizens, and the police show up after the fact and do relatively little,” she says.
Robinson says last summer’s public hearings and divestment of $11 million from the police budget were a step in the right direction, but it’s a “drop in the bucket.” In the end, the department still had its budget increased.
“What we’re demanding, and we’ll continue to demand, is for the defunding and demilitarization of the Edmonton city police service … and the funding of social support that can help to prevent crime.”
An online petition launched by BLM Edmonton in June demanded councillors vow to never increase the police budget, repeal the $75-million increase and re-invest those funds in social services and transit, and pull all officers from schools — among other demands — had been signed more than 13,000 times.
Defunding unpopular; accountability wanted
But the idea of defunding the police doesn’t have much support here, says University of Alberta criminology professor Temitope Oriola.
Police have much stronger favourability ratings in Canada than the United States. An Angus Reid study released in October found 79 per cent of Edmontonians had favourable views of police.
What has changed, especially since last May, is what people expect of them, Oriola says.
“I believe as a criminologist, that incident in Minneapolis spotlighted this public disenchantment with excessive use of force, I think more than anything else in recent times,” he says.
Captured on video, Floyd’s death was undeniable evidence for those who had any doubts excessive force directed toward people of colour was a real problem, he says.
Oriola says Canadians want more accountability, more de-escalation, and there is less tolerance or acceptance of excessive force.
“It made it clear that there are certain practices that the public is no longer willing to put up with, and that official explanations in the face of video evidence may fall flat … and a much, much more robust disciplinary architecture within police services.”
Defence lawyer Tom Engel says since he first started speaking publicly about police misconduct it seems people are more accepting of campaigns to reform police.
“Once you get the public accepting that there’s a problem, then you get public pressure on politicians to do something about it, and … they’re less likely to accept government and police services sweeping stuff under the carpet,” he says. “I think there was a huge shift … which was ignited by the death of George Floyd.”
With the proliferation of smartphones and increased awareness more people are also documenting instances of violence as well, he says.
“Even people of my generation are more quick to grab their phone and start recording,” he says. “Probably the George Floyd thing has influenced that, because people see the power of the video.”
He says interest in cases involving police misconduct among defence lawyers locally appears to be growing.
Police Act review
Police governance and public trust — including the complaint process and oversight — and the role of police are focuses of the province’s current review of the Police Act .
The government held meetings with interested parties over the fall and a public online survey closed this week. Blaise Boehmer, spokesperson for Justice Minister Kaycee Madu, says it’s going to take some time to process all the response to the survey and present results but it remains a priority for the office.
Engel says he hopes the review ends the practice of police investigating themselves.
“Accountability will change the culture in the Edmonton Police Service, and will also raise the morale for the rest of the police officers, as it’s a real morale-buster for good police officers to see nothing happening to police officers who are committing serious transgressions.”
Oriola says the government should look to Alberta’s College of Physicians and Surgeons for inspiration when revisiting its complaints process . Names of doctors and outcomes of disciplinary hearings are posted online while the name of the complainant is withheld.
Raising the minimum entry requirements for education, and psychological testing of new hires are other ways to improve policing outcomes, he says.
Edmonton Police Services is in the process of designing bias awareness training for the department, including modules on racism. The department declined to comment further on the training or the Police Act review.
BLM says more action to come
Although BLM hasn’t been publicly active recently, Robinson says they haven’t given up on their demands — they’re still working behind the scenes.
Though she wouldn’t give details, she said after the COVID-19 vaccine is widely available and it’s safe to gather again people should expect to see more action from the group.
“Our mission is to see an improvement in the quality of life and the level of safety that Black folks feel in this part of the world … we’re going to keep pushing,” she says.
Published at Fri, 08 Jan 2021 18:34:19 +0000