Despite the fact that police officers are more educated than they have ever been, with many members of the forces holding undergraduate degrees in social sciences, the core of their training is still and must always be about the fundamentals of enforcing public safety. The skilled and professional use of force in order to restore public order and subdue violence and even the maintenance of restrained-but-impressive physical presence as a deterrent to violence is a core function of the police that will remain no matter how educated or enlightened they become. Police will always be caught, then, between the expectations of our enlightened, socially progressive, civilian sensibilities and their messy and unpleasant core functions.
Halifax has had a growing reputation in recent years as one of the most violent cities in Canada. Our incidence of gun violence is higher per capita than almost every other location in the country. Should this suggest to us that the police aren't doing so well? No, though members of the public may not completely understand it, crime and in particular violent crime is determined by social forces that are at work in our communities. That's why the most effective solutions to crime rates are powerful and targeted social programs—crime prevention through social development. If we can reduce poverty and promote greater social inclusion, violence goes down.
But if we can't judge the police on the incidence of crime, can we judge them on how they are doing arresting criminals? As an African Nova Scotian who has spent a significant amount of time looking at the overrepresentation of blacks in the criminal justice system, I would have to worry about whether our approach to policing, investigation and arrest are as balanced as they should be.
On the race front we need to acknowledge that police leadership has been making efforts in recent years to better service an increasingly diverse city. HRP did, after all, create their own police academy as a means to improving their ability to recruit, train and retain more women, racialized and Aboriginal persons.
When it comes to the police function of promoting public safety through community engagement, there have been mixed results. The recent concern expressed by Stepping Stone involving the police going door-to-door interviewing sex workers, is an example. Though I'm confident that police intentions were good, the job of reaching out to this historically criminally-targeted population seems a better job for a civilian social service agency. But again, do we blame the police for this faux pas, or the civilian political authorities that created the public policy chaos that prompted it?
Assessing the performance of police is tough. We poorly understand their enforcement role and the core of their training and readiness. They are often dispatched to solve social problems that would be better solved by improved social services. This almost always ends poorly and results in poor visuals for the police and harm to the community. Do they always "get their man?" Not always. Do they always pursue the "right man?" Well, disproportionate policing is a problem.
But this is not a jurisdiction in which black folk are being regularly murdered by police, nor are there stories of rampant police corruption. I would give our local police authorities a B- for their performance. But if I had to grade the municipal, provincial and federal governments on their trilateral efforts to address crime and promote public safety though innovative social development, I would need to give them collectively a big fat F.
Robert S. Wright is a social worker and sociologist who has served as executive director of Nova Scotia’s Child and Youth Strategy.