New York passes police reform package. How do Canadian policies compare?

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George Floyd protests incite police reform across the U.S.
WATCH: George Floyd protests spur police reform across the U.S – Jun 6, 2020

As anti-racism protests continue across the U.S. and around the world, New York has taken steps to implement changes to its police forces in an effort to address systemic racism.

On Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a package of bills he called “nation-leading” in an effort to reform the state’s police departments.

Here’s a look at the reforms and how they compare to Canadian policies.

Reform in New York

Following weeks of anti-racism protests triggered by the death of George Floyd, Cuomo signed into law a package of expansive police reform bills.

The new measures include a ban on chokeholds and the repeal of 50-A — a 1970s law in the state’s civil code that prohibits the release of a police officer’s personal records without explicit permission from the officer or a judge.

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Cuomo also signed into law a bill that prohibits false, race-based 911 calls and a measure that makes the attorney general the independent prosecutor in the killings of unarmed civilians by police officers.

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An executive order was also signed, which mandates all local police departments to develop reform plans with community input by April 2021 in order to be eligible for state funding.

And in a tweet on Monday, Cuomo said he would be signing additional police reforms.

How does Canada compare?

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Greg Brown, a 35-year police veteran in Ontario who now researches policing at Carleton University, said Canada is “way ahead” of New York when it comes to implementing policing reforms.

Brown said in Canada, chokeholds are “not routinely taught and are not practised in the field.”

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He explained that the only time an officer in Canada can use such a technique is if they have a “reasonable understanding that their life is in grave danger.”

He said chokeholds and similar techniques carry with them “significant risk to the subject” and that New York’s move to ban their use is “certainly a move in the right direction.”

Brown also said that in Canada there is no “secret veil” over officers’ records.

He said officers are reviewed constantly by supervisors, and their records are preserved and made available for review in the event that there is an investigation, either internally or by an oversight entity.

Certainly, if an officer is on the radar as having an inordinate number of complaints or there’s some concerns about that officer’s performance, supervisors and police administration would have ready access to the officer’s personnel files,” he explained.

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Brown added that in most jurisdictions in Canada, there are provincial independent civilian oversight bodies that carry the sole authority to decide whether criminal charges should be laid against a police officer.

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“So these American reforms are really a sort of a validation of the model that we’ve been using in Canada for many years,” he said.

Brown pointed to Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) and the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) as examples.

“These are arm’s length agencies that are not involved in any of the local politics, which is a big complaint with the American system or the former system before this bill was introduced,” he explained.

Rob Gordon, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University, said the systems in place in Canada “generally seem to work quite well.”

“I think as far as police are concerned, it’s actually quite helpful, and civil liberties people are quite pleased by the way in which these systems have been operating,” he said.

“It’s very accountable, you can go online and get information about complaints and how they’re resolved, the stage at which the resolution is at — it’s a very open process.”

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Despite policies, shortcomings still present

But Dexter Voisin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, said that while many of these policies are already in place, Canada is “still seeing a higher number of racialized folks dying at the hands of police.”

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“So then what is the gap? What is accounting for that?” he said.

Voisin said this happens because those who enforce and adjudicate these policies are “human beings with both implicit and explicit biases.”

“There’s this old saying that the law is blind (and) that policies are blind, but the folks who are applying them are certainly not colourblind,” he said.

Voisin said Canada needs to “take a look” at who sits on police oversight boards to ensure these policies are used properly.

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“Basically, you have to hire individuals from the community who are members of those communities or individuals who live in those communities,” he said. “So you don’t have outsiders policing those communities.

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Voisin said this has proven to be an effective strategy.

In communities like Canada where community policing programs have been initiated, there’s been, like I said, over a 90 per cent decrease in police (use of) force,” he said.

Collecting race-based data

Brown said Canada is “fairly advanced” in terms of the “checks and balances” in policing.

But he said one way we have fallen behind is by failing to collect race-based data.

He said this means Canada doesn’t have any race-based data about policing to understand how serious an issue over-representation of a particular demographic in interactions with police is.

“Some of my colleagues, they write about disproportionate police interactions with Black people in Toronto, for example, and they based that sort of on observational information or information provided by people that are interviewed about their interactions with police, but there’s no data set that shows (it) empirically,” he explained.

Brown said that without this data, it is difficult to develop and implement evidence-based reforms and it is hard to see if new measures implemented are effective because there is no baseline.

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What has the Canadian government said?

At a press conference on Monday, Trudeau called for “open and transparent” investigations into the cases of people who have died during a police interaction or while in custody.

He said the government is also working with Indigenous leadership, the Black community and other racialized groups to identify changes that can be implemented rapidly to address systemic racism.

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