Community Policing – Better Relationships or Better Surveillance?


In an op-ed written for the Times Colonist in April, Police Chief Frank Elsner laid out his vision for a renewed community policing strategy for Victoria. He wrote, “The social problems we see on our streets cannot be solved with the rule of law alone,” but need to be “balanced” in a “holistic wheel” that he calls “community.” To some people on the street who have only experienced policing as violence, this might sound hopeful. But is it an alternative to ‘law and order’ policing, or a more sophisticated version of the same old beat cop?

A tale of two communities

In March, after the Victoria Police Department (VicPD) did a survey of public attitudes about police based entirely on mail-in surveys with housed people, Victoria’s Society of Living Illicit Drug Users (SOLID) did a counter survey with people in the street-community. The SOLID survey found that out of 110 low-income community people surveyed on the street, 85% of them have had contact with police in the last two years, making them a highly surveilled and monitored group. This high degree of contact, however, does not mean people feel comfortable with police. Only 25% of them agreed that police are polite and fair. 57% of those SOLID surveyed said they do not feel “safe and taken care of” by police, and 53% said they did not feel comfortable approaching and talking with police on the street. Although most of those surveyed by SOLID say they have been victims of a violent crime in the past two years, nearly half said they did not report that crime to police because they did not believe police would or could take action to help them.

Community policing and surveillance

Victoria police chief Frank Elsner came to the post from Ontario at the end of 2013 where he held responsibility for all gang investigations in the province, including what he calls “low-level” drug trade on the street. One main strategy Ontario police use against street level drug trade is their controversial “carding” program, through which police illegally stop, search, and identify people on the street without charges. Although people have the legal right to refuse to identify themselves to police without cause, carding practices rely on either their ignorance of that fact, or their fear of repercussions if they refuse to cooperate with police.

According to Kimlee and Elly from Toronto’s Network for Elimination of Police Violence, carding was introduced as a police strategy of “community engagement,” a community friendly policing strategy of “meeting and getting to know people in the community.” But these ‘meetings’ are used disproportionately against young Black men. In the downtown core, Black men were carded at eight times the rate of anyone else. In some neighbourhoods, police records of carding stops of Black and brown men exceed the population demographics of Black and brown men in those areas. Between 2009 and 2011 Toronto Police entered 1.1 million names in its central carding database.

The Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS), led by police in partnership with Toronto Community Housing, informally deputizes people to gather intimate information about that community and targets certain people. A deeper and more intimate version of carding, TAVIS leads back to the same police database that surveils and maps communities to make them more accessible and vulnerable to police action.

In Los Angeles, where carding-type police practices have been used since the Street Terrorism and Enforcement Prevention (STEP) Act was introduced in the 1980s, police databases built out of community contacts are used to criminalize Black and Latino communities. In Toronto, carding identifies gang members using a “7 Strike” system where police officers decide if clothing, friend groups, or tattoos suggest someone is a gang member. In California, where the STEP Act made it a criminal act to be a member of a gang, police identified people through similar perceptions and added them to a gang database. Being in that database could mean additional charges if arrested, and being automatically transferred to maximum-security solitary confinement.

Community control over police, not community-police!

Elsner’s model of Community Policing is supposed to include mental health workers and housing providers within an expanded “holistic wheel” of policing. But rather than replacing police with care providers, this approach transforms care providers into police by bringing them into a “holistic” law enforcement wheel that can use different approaches. In some cases, as with community policing outreach, they are surveillance operations that gather and map data on communities in a secret police database, and in other cases, like with ACT teams and supportive housing projects, they are police without guns who have police with guns on speed dial.

Elsner claims “more than 70% of people my force deals with in the downtown core have mental health issues” and advocates for an approach that sees people referred to the appropriate health and social services, instead of the criminal justice system. At the same time in arguing that low-level drugs must be dealt with as part of organized crime, the VicPD continues to monitor and punish low-income communities and those struggling with addictions and mental health issues in the ‘survival street drug trade.’ Under the banner of community policing the chief continues to head an institution that abuses, harasses and criminalizes people who use drugs, blocking their access to health care.

SOLID’s report ends with recommendations that aim for police accountability to communities with meaningful oversight and complaints processes, public records and stops and searches including contact receipts, and for police to stop enforcement of ticketing for poverty-related offences like camping. These recommendations take us in the direction of police accountability to communities most vulnerable to police harassment and violence, and not Elsner’s model of increased surveillance and community self-policing that divides and more deeply criminalizes communities on the basis of their racialization and poverty.

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