Strained relationship between police and Indigenous people needs long-term solutions: criminologist

Erick Laming remembers the first sentence that rushed into his mind when he saw video footage of Evan Penner getting punched by a Saskatoon police officer during an arrest this past weekend.

“How can we stop doing this?”

Laming, who is from the Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation in Ontario, is used to seeing cases of police violence against people of colour. As a PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto, he focuses his studies on police use of force and Indigenous and Black community members’ experiences with law enforcement. 

Still, he said, it doesn’t get easier to watch.

Penner was arrested on July 4. The owner of an apartment complex on 11th Street East, where it happened, told CBC News she called the police’s non-emergency line after a tenant reported a man using the building’s garden hose to bathe. 

The video shows an officer on top of Penner as the two struggle. The officer punches Penner several times. Later, after more officers arrive, one of them uses a taser on Penner while he is still on the ground.

Watch the video here:

A video of an arrest that took place July 4 in Saskatoon had prompted calls from advocates for officers to be fired. 5:39

The video led to calls from Saskatoon advocates for the officers involved to be fired.

The Saskatoon Police Service announced Monday that the officer from the start of the video had been put on leave pending a review of his actions.

Making room for non-police responses

Laming said cases like these show how frayed the relationship between the police and Indigenous people is across Canada. He listed the arrest of Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta, who was tackled and punched in the face by RCMP, as another recent example.

“It’s clearly broken, that trust with the community,” he said. 

Laming said completely eradicating police use of force is unrealistic, but that more needs to be done to prevent it.

He said his research has shown that non-police responses to some situations can be a potential solution.

“It’s still important to have that police response [when people are] in need, but maybe they shouldn’t be the first responders to a lot of these calls — especially if these individuals are unarmed,” he said. “Having mental health or mobile crisis response teams helping police can de-escalate these situations.”

Violence against Indigenous communities, it’s been there and it’s going to keep being there until we have these real, meaningful conversations.– Erick Laming, PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto

Michelle Stewart, an associate professor at the University of Regina whose research focuses on policing practices in Canada and social justice, agreed.

“[In the video] I saw more police officers arriving on scene. What I didn’t see arrive on scene was someone who looked like a mental health expert,” Stewart said. 

“If we can’t ensure the safety of all individuals when the police arrive at their home — especially when they’re in a mental health crisis — then we should ask why the police are being called.”

Change begins with government, experts say

Irvin Waller, a professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Ottawa, said it comes down to prevention at the political level.

In 2014, Waller sat on a panel of experts as part of a federally-commissioned report from the Council of Canadian Academies called Policing Canada in the 21st Century: New Policing for New Challenges

“Although the police are now considered the ‘informal first responders of the mental health system,’ they lack the support or necessary resources to effectively carry out this mandate,” the report said.

It goes on to list statistics on how mental health calls are on the rise across the country, attributing them to “a lack of consistent evidence-based practices for how police respond to emotionally disturbed people, and the low interoperable communication system between police and emergency medical services.”

Waller and his colleagues listed several recommendations, including ways police forces can work with local agencies — such as those that focus on mental health and youth — on prevention.

Six years later, Waller said there has been little movement.

“Opinion polls all show the public in line with science. Two-to-one, they want prevention and education more than police,” he said. “We know the solutions, we just don’t have the actions.”

Erick Laming is a Shabot Obaadjiwan First Nation PhD candidate in criminology at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on police use of force, police oversight and Indigenous and Black community members’ experiences with the police. (Erick Laming)

Laming said Saskatchewan has missed the mark so far. He said a recent move to expand the mandate of the Saskatchewan Public Complaints Commission is not a solution.

“Sure, it can act as independent observers in an investigation, but they really have no teeth,” he said.

Laming said police themselves also have to be willing to be open to reform.

He said providing the public with more-detailed data, with a focus on race and use of force, is also crucial.

“If we don’t have that data, we really can’t have a conversation about how to fix those things,” he said.

‘It can’t just be a week-long discussion’

Laming said any solution must begin with wide-reaching, purposeful, ongoing dialogue.

“A lot of the [Indigenous] people I’ve interviewed, they’ve had one negative experience and it’s enough to break that trust and it’s really hard to repair it,” he said.

“It can’t just be a week-long discussion and then it fades on into the distance.”

He emphasized that reform won’t fit within a set timeline.

“Violence against Indigenous communities, it’s been there and it’s going to keep being there until we have these real, meaningful conversations,” he said. 

Laming noted there is optimism in some communities thanks to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the spotlight it has cast on racism worldwide.

He said his research makes him skeptical. In the past, these movements have come in cycles of popularity, leaving behind a minimal impact, he said. But he’s not giving up just yet.

“I think there will be some change to come out of it and I’m hopeful that it will be meaningful,” he said. “We have to be patient with it, but we can’t be complacent.”

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