In 2004, two recruits with the Edmonton Police Service took part in an experiment as part of their training.
Dressed in plain clothes, the two men clasped hands and walked about two and a half blocks down Edmonton’s busy Whyte Avenue in the middle of the day.
That was it: they held hands and walked. And they watched what other people’s reactions would be.
The purpose of the exercise was to teach them what it felt like to be a member of a vulnerable community, according to Stephen Camp, a temporary acting staff sergeant with the Edmonton Police. At the time he helped come up with the idea as one of the leaders of the Hate Crimes unit.
“What we occasionally hear, sometimes frequently hear, is look at the police service, it’s primarily men and white, right?” he said. “It’s actually a very valid point.”
“In Canada and the U.S. a lot of white males would never know what discrimination is at all. So how do you make them feel that?”
Although they had lectures and were taught the impact of hate crimes from an academic research standpoint, Camp thought a hands-on approach would help.
“It was very clear that there was, I thought, a lack of understanding on what it’s like to be a vulnerable group within our society,” he said.
And it was a simple thing to try: “Two men walking together down a road are heterosexual, but as soon as they put their hands together, within a second, they’re gay.”
Mutters and cover teams
The reaction “wasn’t too bad,” said Camp.
“For the first time in their life, they reported being afraid,” said Kris Wells, faculty director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, who was involved in the project.
“There was a combination of feeling anger, wanting to retaliate, and the vulnerability, feeling insecure about their safety, all the things that research shows that victims of hate crimes feel,” said Camp.
“One of the members was actually pissed off at the person who was muttering at them. So it was kind of interesting to get the emotional response from that, the combination of being angry but also feeling unsafe for a moment.”
The recruits were protected as they did their exercise. As is standard practice for any event when an officer is put in a vulnerable position, the two men were tailed by a “cover team,” said Camp.
“In a city like Edmonton, being openly gay would never be considered to be an issue… but as a police agency we have an obligation under our policies to ensure that if you’re doing anything like that that anybody who does any kind of action like that is covered.”
Wells might disagree about Edmonton’s safety: “Myself, I still wouldn’t feel comfortable walking down main streets in Edmonton holding my partner’s hand.”
“LGBT people, as we’ve seen, don’t get undercover units following them around to protect them,” he said. “We live our lives knowing that the threat of violence is always imminent.”
There were 155 reported hate crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation across Canada in 2014, according to Statistics Canada. About two-thirds of those crimes are violent.
American statistics recently compiled by The New York Times show that LGBTQ people are more likely to be the target of hate crimes than any other minority group.
‘An interesting learning moment’
Camp feels that the exercise was a valuable part of the recruits’ hate crime training. “I thought it was an interesting approach to learning and I think it was successful because I’m still speaking to the members that did that and they still remember that day and how they felt, as opposed to just being lectured on something.”
Police forces across the continent contacted them to ask about the program. He thinks Atlanta actually tried it.
However, it didn’t last long in Edmonton. When Camp moved on from the Hate Crimes unit, the exercise stopped being a part of the training.
“There’s really no reason why. Once new members come into a unit, they tweak the training to what they feel is important and they do their thing,” he said.
The Edmonton Police were supportive of the program, but the new Hate Crimes unit tried different training methods.
But even though it was only done three times, he thinks it was a good program.
“People in the academic world like Kris Wells got it. Other police services got it.”