Why Canada Needs "Campaign Zero" Just as Much as the USA

Last month “We The Protestors”, one of the originators of the Black Lives Matter movement, released a platform for reforming the American justice system. The 10-point manifesto, entitled “Campaign Zero”, focuses on key reforms that would help combat systemic racism and decrease the number of police involved deaths to zero. While at first glance the platform may appear specific to the American policing context which has lead to the high profile events in Baton Rouge, Dallas, and Ferguson, the July 24th death of Abdihahman Abdi in Ottawa has forced us to confront a difficult question: How different is Canada?

You can read Campaign Zero's 10-point manifesto here: http://www.joincampaignzero.org/#vision

Campaign Zero can be broken down into three main areas of reform, each of which is applicable here in Canada, although some more directly than others. When we examine each topic in the Canadian context, it’s not hard to see that Canadian policing has more in common with our neighbours to the south than we may have realized.

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

1. Reform how our laws are written and enforced (#1: End Broken Windows, #8: End For-Profit Policing)

“Broken windows” policing is based on the theory that tolerance of any kind of disorder, from broken windows to littering, creates the conditions that breed more serious crime. In the United States, broken windows policing has focused almost entirely on poor communities of colour. Here in Canada the same theory is applied under the name “proactive policing”. From jaywalking tickets to crack downs on survival economic activity, proactive policing takes the form of aggressive enforcement of bylaws and misdemeanor offences, often when there has been no public complaint or discernible harm created. 

When we create bylaws that make everyday activities illegal, rather than targeting the actual harm that could potentially result from that activity, we give the police sweeping powers to detain, investigate, and oppress large groups of people. Over time governments have increasingly crafted broad laws, then delegated the responsibility of determining how to enforce those laws to police, often to the detriment of Indigenous people, Black people, and other people of colour who are the subject of unconscious or overt bias.

The unequal enforcement of Vancouver’s street vending bylaws are a prime example of biased policing. When Pivot asked for data on how the Vancouver Police Department enforced street vending laws, we found that 95% of all tickets were given out in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, home to some of Canada’s poorest and most marginalized residents. The bylaw itself covers a wide variety of potentially illegal conduct including yards sales, fruit displays for grocery stores, and lemonade stands (Just ask two girls from Ottawa how broadly these bylaws can be worded), but police elected to enforce the bylaw against one type of person in one type of neighbourhood. One of those DTES residents was Louise Lagimodiere, an Indigenous elder who was ticketed for simply placing a plastic bag of food down on a sidewalk to show someone its contents. 

Aggressive bylaw enforcement and random police stops known as “carding” or “street checks” continue across Canada despite their questionable legality and statistics showing they clearly disproportionately target Black people. Together these practices are destroying the  relationship between officers and some of the communities they are meant to serve.

2. Increase oversight and break down the shields that protect violent and racist police officers (#2: Community Oversight, #4: Independently Investigate and Prosecute, #5: Community Representation, #10: Fair Police Union Contracts)

If there is one thing we have learned over the course of the 15 years Pivot has worked on police accountability, it is that the “Blue Wall of Silence” or “Blue Shield” is alive and well in Canada. The rule that police officers must look after and protect each other at all costs has developed over time into a barrier for reform. Even in the face of racism, excessive force, and criminal behaviour, it has become socially unacceptable in police culture for one officer to report a fellow officer’s misconduct. Nowhere has this phenomenon been more pronounced than in the RCMP, which continues to suffer a crisis of unchecked harassment and intimidation toward women within its ranks.

For far too long, substantive concerns about systemic police misconduct in both the United States and Canada have been dismissed using the simplistic “few bad apples” narrative.  And while that may be true to some degree, the culture of a police department, and the failure to prevent misconduct can quickly take its toll on other impressionable members of a force. In a recent article Redditt Hudson, a Black man and former police officer in St. Louis, theorized that in any given police force 15% of officers are likely to do the right thing no matter what the pressures of the job may be, and 15% are likely to commit misconduct regardless of those same pressures. The other 70% will be heavily swayed by what they see from their peers, and will follow the lead of both officers on their level and their supervisors. Without meaningful oversight and independent investigations into police misconduct, there is insufficient deterrence to prevent the misconduct of some from influencing the behaviour of the many.

While we have moved towards independent investigations bodies to handle cases involving serious harm and death in Canada, the vast majority of police interactions, especially the type of negative interactions resulting from street checks and enforcement of bylaw offences mentioned above, continue to be handled by internal affairs, with little or ineffective government and community oversight.

3. Limits on the use of force and changes to training (#3: Limit Use of Force, #6: Body Cams/Filming the Police, #7: Training, #9: Demilitarization)

Just last month, video was released of transit police officers beating Charles Riby-Williams, a former UBC football player. News outlets, however, have failed to report on the most important aspect of his case. When the officer approached Charles for not having a valid fare and asked him his name, Charles provided it in full. That officer radioed back to his station to have Charles’s name run in their database, and was told that there was no record associated with that name. No convictions, no concerns. But instead of being relieved to hear that news the officer, unable to believe that a young Black man could have no record, determined that he must be lying. He moved to arrest Charles for obstruction of justice and immediately escalated to an extreme level of violence when Charles tried to get him to calm down and stop. Police are not the judiciary, but Charles was found guilty on sight, and suffered serious violence as a result.

Interactions like these are the product of a system that emphasizes use of force and submission tactics over communication and de-escalation. The introduction of body cameras in Canada offer the hope that police officers will no longer to be able to continually rely on some of the tried and true justifications for escalation, like non-compliance with commands to show one’s hands, or the increasingly hazy and often speculative need to prioritize “officer safety”, as video has placed police violence and escalation in a light not seen before, placing greater scrutiny on an officer's subjective reasons for using force.   

While strides have been made in Canada to increase the level of training police receive on “de-escalation” tactics, the belief that citizens who challenge police, even in respectful ways, should be met with force is deeply engrained in policing culture, and often unquestioned by the public outside of communities that are the subject of unequal enforcement. The current police use of force model clearly teaches officers that as a situation begins to escalate, the response should be an escalation in the level of force applied. The only way to change that guiding approach to policing is to introduce categorical changes to way we train, equip, and monitor police as they go about their work. 

Campaign Zero has been lauded as a no-nonsense and practical solution to a policing crisis that has gripped communities across North America. It targets the fundamental philosophies and inequalities that exist in our policing systems, and these problems do not stop at the border. It is time for Canadians to recognize that the crisis of violence and discrimination within police forces is the logical result of the philosophies and policies that drive proactive policing, and that we need Campaign Zero in Canada just as much as our neighbour to the south.