Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify the connection between the death of George Floyd and the Kingston Police Services Board’s discussions of addressing concerns surrounding systemic racism. The concept of defunding the police, while part of the wider reaction to the death of Floyd, was not part of the board’s discussions, nor was it discussed in the interview with Andrea Risk.
Last week, the Kingston Police Services board struck a committee to review matters of systemic racism locally as it pertains to policing.
The idea for the sub-committee came out of a discussion about whether to introduce a body-worn camera pilot project in Kingston.
After concerns were expressed about the costs of such a process, and its overall benefit in the city, chair of the board Andrea Risk suggested a sub-committee be struck to review how the board might best address concerns of systemic racism within the ranks of Kingston police.
“I think we’re at a point of time where everybody in our society, individuals, institutions, everybody needs to take a look at systemic racism, and we on the police board are very much aware of that,” Risk said.
Risk said the idea for the body-worn cameras was prompted by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died on May 25 after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer in Minneapolis, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes.
Floyd’s death sparked anti-Black racism and police brutality protests across the world, and discussions about police tactics, systemic racism, and even defunding the police were thrown into the spotlight. Risk said the implications of this outrage were not lost on the Kingston Police Services board.
“I can’t say we hadn’t thought of (striking a committee) before, we have. I think the killing of George Floyd made everybody sit up and be aware of these issues in a way that we should have been before, but probably weren’t,” Risk said.
Christian Leuprecht, a member of the board, as well as a a political science professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University, has also signed up to be part of the board’s subcommittee, along with other board members Jarrod Stearns and Kingston Coun. Jeff McLaren.
Leuprecht agreed to speak not as a member of the board, but as an expert in national security among many other things. He has been involved in discussion over body cams on the federal level, and locally, he had some objections to institute a pilot program without first gauging if they are the best course of action in Kingston.
“We can always spend more taxpayer money on all sorts of things, but especially in a time when we know that fiscal means are going to be heavily constrained, let’s make sure we spend the money to get in the most efficient, effective way to make sure we achieve the outcomes that we want,” the national security expert said in an interview.
Leuprecht said often when there are large issues to address, its easier for policy makers to jump on solutions, often expensive technological ones, that seem to address the issue, but in fact don’t get to the heart of the problem. That’s why he thinks striking the committee was the right thing to do.
“It shouldn’t be up to police to decide, it shouldn’t be up to boards to decide, it shouldn’t be up to police chiefs to decide and it shouldn’t be up to police associations to decide. It should ultimately, be up to the to the people to decide,” Leuprecht said.
Timothy Bryan, a Dalhousie Univeristy professor whose research focuses on policing of hate crime, race and racism and the Canadian criminal justice system, had a similar concerns about body-worn cameras, but also about the committee itself.
He believes the move to review such issues may be well meaning, but that broader change is in order.
“Problems of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism did not emerge because of a lack of committees or lack of body worn cameras, and so I think we have to be critical about the promise that some of these solutions bring, because the absence of these things didn’t cause the problem in the beginning,” Bryan said.
The sociology professor believes for real change to occur, police across North America have to fundamentally rethink how they serve the public.
“If police view their role as primarily about law enforcement rather than serving the public, then I’m not sure how much use these committees do, because at times the law enforcement mission of police overrides commitments to community, even when you have structures in place designed to make a community a priority,” Bryan said.
The committee, along with the Kingston Police Services board, is made up entirely of white members, something Bryan said was very problematic.
“I do think it’s also telling that we arrive at 2020 and we still have committees that are attempting to address issues of racism,” Bryan said.
Risk said the committee was in its infancy, and that plans for how it will run, and what it will address, have yet to be ironed out, but that they would be making efforts to bring in more diverse voices.
“Clearly, we do need to hear from people in our community who are racialized because we really need to have their voices be part of this discussion,” Risk said.
Risk was also asked if the committee would look at an instance where one of their police officer, Det. Brad Hughes, posted on social media after Floyd’s death that those who died while in police custody did so because they were resisting arrest.
“Had every single one of the deceased in the high profile cases in the US not resisted their arrest but instead complied, sat themselves in the cruiser and fought their case in the court room rather then the street, they’d ALL be alive today,” Hughes wrote back in June.
Kingston police launched an internal investigation into the incident, and according to Risk, that investigation is still ongoing. She did say that instances like that could definitely be reviewed by the board, but that she couldn’t comment further.
Chief Antje McNeely, who will be working with the committee, said in an interview Wednesday, it’s important for leaders of every organization to acknowledge that systemic racism is a factor in Canadian institutions.
“It‘s about barriers in the institutions that were built into the system, built in from a long time ago,” McNeely said.
“It’s really important to address this by looking into our policies and to our procedures, with a view of improving and removing those barriers that may cause disparities to others,” the chief continued.
McNeely mentioned over the last year, Kingston police have been introducing training and discussions that tackle items like intercultural awareness in relation to Indigenous populations and residential schools as well as implicit bias. McNeely said she believes the committee will review those efforts and build upon them.
Bryan said the most important factor locally, for a police station like Kingston to have an impact through such a committee, is to have the motivation for change, rather than to simply paying lip-service to issues of systemic racism.
“If these solutions get rolled out simply to move us out of time of crisis, then what we find is that in a few years down the road, we find ourselves in another crisis where we’re having the same conversation again,” Bryan said.
But the chief says the committee will be about action, and will bring in police, community partners, the Kingston police association to address specific issues brought forward by members of the public.
“Listening, understanding and getting some active conclusions to whatever that problem might be — that’s what’s going to be ongoing in this committee,” McNeely said.