Today, May 25, 2022, marks two years since the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin. Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nine excruciating minutes, even as Floyd cried that he couldn’t breathe. As horrified onlookers watched helplessly and Chauvin’s colleagues did nothing to stop him, Floyd died of asphyxiation.
George Floyd’s death re-ignited the Black Lives Matter movement that first began in 2013 in response to ongoing police brutality against Black bodies in America. People in cities across the U.S. and the world took to the streets in protest of anti-Black racism in policing (and society at large).
The general sentiment that followed Floyd’s murder was that the culture of anti-Blackness in policing must change. Over the last two years, some progress has been made. Chauvin was convicted of two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter and sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.
Additionally, 140 police oversight and reform laws were passed in the US in the year after Floyd’s death. These laws addressed use of force, no knock warrants, and access to officers’ disciplinary records amongst other issues. Some cities also redirected police funding towards wraparound supports like public health and social services that help to reduce and prevent crime. In Canada, Halifax, Montreal, and Edmonton all began discussions about reforming and defunding police forces.
Not enough has changed
Since May 25, 2020, dozens of Black lives have been lost to police brutality and violence on both sides of the Canada/US border. Black Lives Matter protestors were beaten, pepper sprayed, and met with other violent responses, even as they decried police brutality. Up to a year after Floyd’s death, promises from Canadian cities to defund police forces had not been fulfilled. In fact, cities like Vancouver and Toronto directly rejected motions to cut police budgets by small amounts (1% and 10% respectively).
Moreover, historic incidents over the last two years—namely the storming of the US Capitol and the Canadian Trucker Convoys—demonstrated sharp differences in the treatment of white and Black bodies in North America. Both the US Capitol stormers and the Convoy protestors faced minimal police intervention and far less violence than Black Lives Matter protestors had dealt with just months before.
Anti-Black racism in policing is not new
It is not surprising that change has been slow to come. The road to eliminating anti-Black racism is a long one because racism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness are deeply entrenched in the culture and history of policing. In the southern U.S. colonies, the earliest form of policing was the slave patrol. These forces were typically made up of groups of men on horseback with whips, ropes, and sometimes guns. They were responsible for capturing enslaved people who were attempting to escape.
While slave patrols were not common in northern states or Canada, early forms of policing in these areas were direct instruments of colonialism. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were tasked with enforcing the subjugation of Indigenous peoples, including forcing children into Residential Schools. The police of the time were also charged with controlling Black populations after slavery ended in Canada in 1834. There were rampant anti-Black sentiments at the time (as is still the case today), including the belief that Black people were inherently dangerous and criminal. This led to hyper-surveillance and criminalization of Black people and communities.
History repeats itself
Policing continues to disproportionately harm Black people in Canada today. Often, when activists, advocates, and equity professionals raise this ongoing anti-Black racism in Canadian policing, there is resistance. Many will cite a common myth that discriminatory policing is now a uniquely American problem. But the numbers tell a very different story. Although Canada has been very slow to collect race-based data, the information that does exist demonstrates a clear issue at every level of criminal justice, from policing to the courts.
Studies show that Canadian police stop, search, and question Black people across Canada far more frequently that white people:
- In Halifax, Black people are six times more likely to be stopped and questioned (2019);
- In Vancouver, Black people account for 5% of street checks despite being 1% of the population (2017); and
- In Toronto, Black people were 3.25 times more likely to be the subjects of street checks (2008-2013).
In cases where police interactions end with violence and fatalities, Black people are severely overrepresented. In Ontario, they account for 25.4% of SIU investigations, 36% of police shootings, and 70% of police shootings and 61.5% of use of force cases that end in death, while only representing 4% of the provincial population.
Black people are also more likely to be arrested, charged, and detained than their white counterparts. Between 2013 and 2017, Black people in Toronto accounted for 37.6% of cannabis charges. This rate is more that four times higher than white people (who were found to use cannabis at similar rates). Black people accounted for 35.2% out-of-sight charges after traffic stops despite making up just 8% of the population. Black suspects were also more likely to be detained before trial and were held for longer periods.
Naturally, higher rates of stops, arrests, and charges have led to overrepresentation of Black people in Canadian jails. Black people are twice as likely to be incarcerated in federal jails than white people. They are also overrepresented in many provincial jails. While incarcerated, they face more disciplinary charges, and that disproportionality has continued to grow.
The problem is clear. So, what now?
Our criminal justice systems cannot claim to be just when they continue to criminalize Black people and communities. A reckoning began in the summer of 2020, and many political bodies and organizations within the criminal justice sector acknowledged that change is necessary. We must not allow those promises and commitments to be forgotten or put off.
More than that, eliminating anti-Black racism is a matter of action. While the commitments and promises made by government bodies and criminal justice institutions are welcomed, words are not enough. The momentum of the anti-racism movement that was ignited in the summer of 2020 can only be maintained through intentional action towards more equitable outcomes.
That action must include:
- Acknowledgement of the historical and contemporary issues that lead to disproportionately poor outcomes for Black people in the criminal justice sector.
Unless we name the roots of anti-Black racism and white supremacy in policing, we cannot begin to change it. Until we recognize how current policies and practices harm Black people and communities, nothing will change. It is essential that we continue to acknowledge how anti-Blackness has shaped our nation’s approach to policing if we ever hope to eliminate it.
- Developing and implementing policies that directly address anti-Blackness within criminal justice institutions
Policies do not function in a vacuum, and they cannot be effective if they are not intentional. Policies must be rooted in frameworks like anti-oppression and anti-racism and responsive to the lived experiences of the people they impact.
- Ensure that policies and changes include measures for accountability for every professional within criminal justice.
A policy can only be effective if it is adhered to. This means that any policy designed to address anti-Black racism within criminal justice must be backed up with measures for accountability. Anti-Black racism cannot be allowed to go unchecked.
Of course, anti-Black racism is a complex issue, and the work that needs to be done will not be easy or quick. But at KOJO Institute, we believe that there is hope for meaningful change within the criminal justice system. We work with organizations within this sector—including police forces, oversight organizations, and justice systems—to support organizational culture change that will produce more equitable outcomes.
We are continuing this work with Daring to Do™: A Framework for Anti-Racist Action in Criminal Justice. This three-part learning series will further explore what anti-Black racism looks like in criminal justice, how it impacts Black people, and a framework for taking meaningful action. We invite all professionals and advocates in the sector to join us. For details, visit https://kojoinstitute.com/daring-to-do-criminal-justice/