“We need a new police culture”

an interview with Devon Clunis

The better America (Issue IV/2020)


Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Mr. Clunis, four police officers kneeling on a man until he suffocates to death: the video of George Floyd’s murder by American policemen was one of the defining moments of 2020. What was your first reaction when you saw the video?

I had three distinct reactions. My first reaction was certainly that as a person of colour. That was a very infuriating feeling, of course. The second reaction was that of a human being in general terms, a deep sadness of seeing a life snuffed out so callously. And my final reaction was that of somebody who has worked for the police most of his life. I know most policing techniques and I am familiar with the training that police officers receive. When I saw the video, I turned to my wife and said that I knew of no rationale that would justify that type of action. Three people, four people kneeling on a man without an immediate threat … there is no way to make sense of that. The officers applied deadly force, even though there was no immediate threat. Neither a police officer nor anybody else can explain that.

The video struck a nerve. People around the world protested against police brutality and racism. Problems which seem to go far beyond the U.S. borders. Demonstrations also flared up in your home city Winnipeg. Could the Floyd killing have happened in Canada as well?

I would still hold that the situation in the US is somehow unique. That does by no means suggest that police brutality and racism aren’t an issue here or anywhere else outside of the United States. But having done work for American police organisations regularly in the past, I do think that there are important differences in Canadian policing and in American policing – and also in racist tensions. As a black man, I can tell you, that every time that I travel to the U.S., my senses are immediately heightened. Only when I cross back to Canada, I get a sense of relaxation. Many American athletes who play in Canadian sports leagues report similar feelings. The black experience is quite different and less stressful here. So that is one difference. The other fact is, that American police officers, in my experience, are perceiving themselves almost as being in a war against “the bad guys”. This sense is intensified by the fact that everybody they confront can potentially be armed. That changes the mindset extremely, for sure. When I tell American colleagues that in 29 years of active service, I only twice drew my weapon in the line of duty – and that I mostly left my gun at work when I went home – they are usually in shock. Many of them carry multiple firearms and are prepared for the worst-case scenario at all times.

Still, Canada faces its own issues around policing and racism: Only in the past months, footage emerged showing Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in Alberta forcing a First Nations chief to the ground and punching him in the head. Later, an indigenous man was shot dead by the RCMP in New Brunswick. And the case of Chantel Moore, a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, caused great unrest. During a “wellness check” Moore allegedly threatened an officer with a knife. He then fired five times, killing her…

I don’t want to dispute that. From experience, talking about individual cases is always difficult as we don’t know all the details. On the one hand, there certainly is an issue here: In my eyes, the experience of the indigenous community in Canada is sadly quite reflective of that of the black community in the US. When you look at Canadas history – especially the dispossession of the indigenous people – then we are still seeing the ripple effects of that today. This issue of race also carries over into policing. On the other hand, simply pointing at police officers isn’t leading us anywhere either. In situations of extreme tension, police officers are first and foremost trained to eliminate a threat – both to them and to other civilians. I can appreciate the fact that people often say, why not shoot an arm or a leg or be less aggressive. But that’s also a simplification of the facts. When you are put in a threatening situation, you react based on training to stop the threat.

In many cases there is no obvious threat, though – and still there is an excess of force used, often against minorities. Would you agree to those who say that such incidents are an indication of systemic racism in the police force?

In that matter, I can only speak as somebody who served the police department in Winnipeg for almost three decades. Looking back, I can honestly say that if I look at all our practices and the way we do the work: No, there is no institutionalised racism. Did I experience discriminatory behaviour? Yes! Are there racist officers? Yes! But the racism in the police force is a reflection of the racism in society to me. When I moved to Canada with my family from Jamaica aged 11 years old, I witnessed that racism first hand. One of my first teachers dismissed me as a “not very smart kid”. On the other hand, my grade six teacher, Miss Hanna, spent extra time tutoring me and I became a top student. And in junior high, I was called all kinds of things plenty of times. But at the same time, I also became the first black police chief in Canada. Three of my black friends became officers in Winnipeg in the late 1980s. How would that have happened with the alleged degree of structural racism? “Systemic racism” is an answer that is too simple for the complex issue that we see in the incidents we talked about.

How would you make sense of the current debate instead?

In my mind, what we should rather talk about is twofold: We should talk about what I call “experiential racism”. This is closely linked to the socio-economic backdrop of crime. And we should address the overburdening of the police force. These are the most pressing policing issues in my mind. When I talk about experiential racism, what I am saying is that there are racist biases that are certainly being fostered in police work due to an overexposure to certain social groups. The term “systemic racism” is misleading in this sense. Instead of having “racist” guidelines and orders many police officers develop racist biases during their job. They are constantly being sent into socially problematic neighbourhoods. Statistically, they deal with more minority groups there than they deal with your average white Canadian. The experience therefore indicates that race has something to do with crime – and that’s how racist biases form and develop in the following encounters. If you then go and do an investigation, for example, and all evidence is pointed in one direction and you still end up continuing down the wrong road and follow the black guy… that bias has turned into a racist issue. The more logical conclusion from these encounters, however, would probably be that crime is linked to socio-economic conditions rather than race. An interesting test would be to put a hundred black people in an affluent neighbourhood. Would officers still treat them the same? That would be a telling experiment.

As well as the racism issue, you have also addressed the fact that the police is increasingly overwhelmed.

Exactly. In my experience, the police has become the catch-all for too many political and societal issues. Police are more and more on the frontline of all kinds of social struggles. We are available 24/7 and we get increasingly called to everything. I’ll give you an example: Police officers for example are constantly deployed to looking for kids who run away from child protection services in Canada. There is no crime involved there, of course, but still many officers spend entire days doing that. And when you bring the kid back to his home, by the time you say goodbye to the staff, the child has already escaped out the backdoor again. Why is that not an issue that child protection deals with? Another example: In most cities around Canada, domestic violence is the number one reason why police are being called. Why is that so? Do you really need an officer with a gun there? If there’s an immediate threat, sure. But shouldn’t more money flow into preventing those issues and financing counselling? And if there’s a mental health check shouldn’t there be a trained phycologist rather than an armed officer ringing the doorbell? We do very little preventive work. Instead, we send in the police when things have gotten really bad.

What would you suggest to counter that from your own experience?

Let me take the example of my time in Winnipeg. I took over as a police chief there in 2012. Back then, the city was often called “the murder capital of Canada”. It had one of the highest crime rates in the country. The first thing I did, was that I went to the premier, the governor so to say and said: “Stop giving me money for policing, cut my budget.” That was a shock to many people in- and outside of the department. But the idea was that there would be better ways to reallocate the money. Instead of following that idea of “more boots on the ground”, which is, let’s be honest, often used as a political tool to signal a sort of law and order mentality to voters, I wanted the premier to invest otherwise. I told him to take the excess money and put it into social work and helping the poor neighbourhoods where most of the crimes originated.

So in that sense you would support the “defund the police”-movement that has recently gained traction?

If defunding is interpreted as reallocation, yes. But I also think there’s other steps to be taken. For example, we organised a number of community forums across the city, to find out what the people on the streets were actually worried about. It turned out that many of the pressing issues to them weren’t related to crime at all. Some wanted the roads to be fixed … some wanted parenting classes … they were talking about all these social issues. So I challenged my officers to become catalysts for social change. I said: “You can’t fix all of these issues, but you can connect the people to the relevant institutions and be a facilitator”. That also changes the image of the police for the better. I also said in individual talks with my officers: “When you see kids out in the streets, why don’t you stop and hang out for a while and ask them about the issues on the street?”

A sort of “community policing”?

Yes, I was always an advocate of that. The police needs to first and foremost build community connections again to become part of the community – and not be perceived as its adversary. Certainly, things such as de-escalation training and awareness-training for racist biases needs to be done just as much. To me, in a way, the entire culture around policing needs to change, however. I think we need to remind ourselves of the purpose of the police. We have to be informed by the people. If the only time that people see us, is when something bad is happening, that’s not helping anybody. By the way: In my first year in Winnipeg the crime rate dropped by 13.9 percent - with no additional expenditures. So those strategies were a great success. The biggest testament to the success of that strategy was an encounter that I had shortly before I retired, though. I was helping out at a soup kitchen with my wife one day, when a man came up to me to get his meal and he said: “You know, I know you. You are the chief of police. And since you became the police chief, the officers started to treat us differently.” That was one of the greatest compliments of my career.

Interview by Kai Schnier
Translated by Jess Smee

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