A system that is broken

Recognizing the violence inherent to institution of policing

Ayame Ulrich

The claim that the police occasionally use violence against citizens is no longer contestable in an age of cellphones and security cameras.

Last summer, YouTube users watched a Vancouver cop push a 98-pound woman with multiple sclerosis to the ground for the offence of getting in his way on a crowded sidewalk.

In November, viewers saw the strip search of an Ottawa woman who was pinned to the ground by three male officers while a fourth cut off her shirt and bra.

In early 2011, they saw a Kelowna police officer kick an unarmed man in the face as he was kneeling on the ground, hands raised above his head.

Then, there were the hours of footage of police abuses at the Toronto G20 protests, and the later realization that nearly 100 officers had removed their name tags as they beat and tear-gassed protesters, journalists and passers-by.

It would seem that we hardly need an official day to recognize that police abuse occurs, but International Day Against Police Brutality is about more than just alerting the public to the fact that some cops are violent.

In the aftermath of incidents like those above we often see public outrage. We see calls for the firing of police officers who shove citizens and criminal charges for those who kick them in the face.

But attempts to purge the force of those few bad apples fail to recognize that violence in policing is systemic – that it is built right into the very institution of policing and into the entire justice system.

Police officers who commit violence (or who endorse it, in the case of the Toronto cop who told a classroom of college students they could prevent rape by “not dressing like sluts”) do not do so because they are monstrous people, but because they are products of an institution founded on racism, social inequality, violence and coercion.

On Saturday, March 19, a group of students, activists, community members and survivors of police violence will be marching from the North End to the West End to raise awareness about police brutality and in support of several demands that we feel begin to get to the root of the problems in policing, rather than just calling for the heads of individual police officers.

Among them are the banning of tasers and the installation of surveillance cameras and microphones in police cruisers and detention areas.

We need to be preventative in our approach to finding peace between the public and the police

Also fundamental to these demands is the creation of a civilian police oversight board that has actual power over the police, including a clear procedure for handling public complaints of police brutality.

The Winnipeg Police Service must also establish an official policy prohibiting officers from confiscating cameras or destroying footage belonging to those who film or photograph the police.

It is the right of the public to observe the people appointed to protect them – people who are given considerable power and authority to do so.

Organizations like Winnipeg Copwatch – who record and document police-civilian interactions – have encountered intimidation and even violence in their attempts to deter police brutality and hold police accountable. 

We need to be preventative in our approach to finding peace between the public and the police.

Simply put, the more we can reduce the necessity for police-civilian interaction, the better.

The federal government must reinstate and maintain funding for community-based programming that proactively deal with crime; just recently, we saw funding expire for several local gang-prevention programs whose focus was improving education, work and recreation opportunities for inner-city youth.

In the same vein, the local government must reject proposals for any bylaws that further criminalize the poor and bring them into more frequent contact with police. Attempts to outlaw boulevard panhandling, for example, would certainly fit that description.

We hope that with these demands we can begin to move beyond demonizing individual police officers, and into a discussion about how we can fix a very broken system.

Jacquie Nicholson is a University of Winnipeg graduate and a member of the International Day Against Police Brutality (IDAPB) organizing committee. The IDAPB march beings at the William Norrie Centre, 485 Selkirk Ave., on Saturday, March 19 at 12 p.m.

Published in Volume 65, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 17, 2011)

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