9 Decolonization and Policing
Title: Decolonizing Policing: How Can It be Achieved?
The purpose of this chapter is to identify how colonization has impacted the discipline of policing and to highlight the urgent need to decolonize this field of inquiry. Using a comparative analysis of Aboriginal policing models in Canada, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, this chapter seeks to uncover the good and the bad of these alternative policing models and how they have impacted their respective countries. As it stands, the traditional policing model does not uphold the standard we as a society should strive for. Community-based policing and Aboriginal policing models raise the bar on policing standards and may ultimately hold the answer to how we can achieve decolonized policing.
Political unrest related to the criminal justice system has been on the rise over the last year. The case of George Floyd, a black man whose death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer was captured on film, sparked global discussion around racialized policing practices and calls for police reformation. Similarly, in Canada, the case of Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man killed on a rural Saskatchewan farm, was just one of the many landmark cases calling for a review of policing practices with regards to race. The fact that these cases were not isolated events evidences the need to decolonize policing. The list of individuals victimized through racialized policing practices remains endless and those on it deserve recognition in their own right. There exists a police culture in which a “code of silence” stifles internal reporting, making protecting the “brotherhood” more important than doing the right thing. Victims of the horrendous acts inflicted by police are not always treated like victims; they may be criticized by the media, their images torn apart, and treated like criminals. These impacts of colonization are deeply rooted within the justice system and leave Indigenous groups, in particular, less well off.
While the police are a very important component of social protection and the maintenance of order, this idea of protection does not extend to all citizens. Decolonization of policing is clearly needed if Indigenous communities and other racialized groups in Canada are to be served equitably. To justify its treatment of Indigenous people, the colonial system strategically debased and criminalized Indigenous people in Canada. This resulted in social exclusion, greatly limited socio-economic potential, and caused associated mental health issues, which can all be fathomed as precursors to criminal behaviour and help to explain why Indigenous people are overrepresented by 500% within the Canadian justice system (John Howard Society, 2017). Police are the frontline of the justice system and must entertain no racial or personal bias, which implies the need to enforce a level of cultural and personal awareness among police officers. Initiatives such as First Nations Policing programs offer a more comprehensive and culturally sensitive policing model that better reflect the communities in which they police. Community-based policing programs work to restore/build trust between the community and the police. They operate in such a way as to help the police better understand the communities they serve and to involve local community members in decision making. Decolonizing the practice of policing may be a tricky feat but it is an important one. Looking to existing practices aimed at reducing inequalities and ensuring more cultural awareness in policing is a good place to start.
Impact of Colonization
Settler colonialism has left a daunting impact on Canada’s Indigenous communities. Through horrific policies such as in the Indian Act (1876), the sixties scoop by child protection, and the Canadian residential school system, Indigenous people were stripped of their land, culture, and traditions by means of forced assimilation and dispossession. The impacts of these policies continue to marginalize Indigenous communities and maintain a colonial culture whereby Indigenous people are deemed less-than-equal in today’s society. Racialized policing practices serve as an example of how systemic racism stems from the racism institutionalized through colonial practices: “Racialized policing is part and parcel of settler colonialism as it reinforces and naturalizes structural inequalities” (Stewart, 2018, p. 186). Racialized policing goes beyond individual officers; rather, it is part of a policing culture ingrained by the colonial system and protected by “a code of silence” that prevents officers from holding one another accountable.
One of the most notable impacts of racialized policing practices is found in the Starlight Tours. The Starlight Tours was an unofficial practice whereby Saskatoon police officers would drive Indigenous people to the outskirts of town in below-freezing weather and leave them to walk home as a form of punishment or a way to “cool down” (Stewart, 2018). In November of 1990, Neil Stonechild became among one of the Indigenous men who lost his life due to this unethical practice. On the night of the 24th, after having had a few drinks with friend, Jason Roy, Neil Stonechild decided to split off from Roy to go pay an unwelcome visit to his ex-girlfriend (Stewart, 2018). Though quite intoxicated, Stonechild was able navigate his way to his ex-girlfriend’s’ apartment where police were eventually dispatched to remove him from the property. Shortly after arriving, the police cleared the scene indicating that Stonechild was not there (Stewart, 2018). Later the very same night, Jason Roy was stopped by police while he was walking home and reported that his friend, Neil Stonechild, was in the backseat of the police car, covered in blood and “screaming that the police were going to kill him”. Stonechild died of hypothermia later that night (Stewart, 2018, p. 188).
The code of silence, fortified by built-in protections within the culture of policing allowed this practice to take the lives of at least three Indigenous men and proved to be “emblematic of an ongoing process of settler colonialism” (Stewart, 2018, p. 192). Neil Stonechild was vilified throughout an investigation concluded in just three shifts (Stewart, 2018). The final report indicated that Stonechild died from hypothermia during his walk back to the youth facility where he was staying, and the marks on his body were said to be from “his body settling into the frozen grass and impressions made by the frozen grass, snow, and twigs” (Stewart, 2018, p. 188). This unconscionable practice and the cover-ups would continue for more than ten years after Stonechild’s death.
While the Starlight Tours eventually came to an end, the impacts of settler colonialism persisted. According to Michelle Stewart, racialized policing serves a much larger role under settler colonialism than is commonly thought and should be understood as “delivering different forms of justice to different groups of people” (Stewart, 2018, p. 196). The many cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls exemplify just that. As well, because Indigenous women were systematically devalued and treated as lesser people within society, they became a vulnerable target for predators and acts of violence. There has been a long history of police putting in little-to-no effort into solving or investigating cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women. This represents an “utter failure of police and other government officials to investigate these cases, or even take them seriously” (Monchalin, 2016, p. 185).
Stewart (2018) argues that the relationship one holds with the police is a direct reflection of social privilege or lack thereof. The values of colonialism, such as systemic racism, remain the basis of the blatant inequalities within the justice system and racialized policing is a by-product. This has created a climate where people are fearful or distrustful of police and question their ability to carry out justice. This is seen in many Indigenous communities, where relations with police are virtually non-existent thanks to victimization and racialized practices like the Starlight Tours and the lack of initiative regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. To mitigate the challenges and inequalities that Indigenous people and other racialized groups unjustly face within the Canadian justice system, decolonized policing practices need to be implemented and significant reform must be achieved.
Decolonization is a term that holds many different meanings to many different people. Monchalin (2016, cited in Asadullah, 2021) defines decolonization as “both a goal and process to bring about a fundamental shift in colonial structures, ideologies and discourses” (p. 1). “Fanon (1963) saw decolonization as a process of both unlearning and undoing the harms of colonization” (Asadullah, 2021, p. 1). Decolonization is about restoring indigenous views, cultures and traditions, as well as shifting to a narrative that “replaces Western interpretations of history with Indigenous perspectives of history” (Indigenous Corporate Training, 2017). Many scholars view decolonization in either its micro or its macro forms; some believe decolonization must encompasses both. While there is no catch-all definition for the concept, it is generally agreed that decolonization is a process intended to bring about positive change. Decolonization will not happen overnight. Undoing the colonial structures and systemic racism that are deeply rooted within Canadian systems will take time. There is much harm to repair and a dire need for conciliation. Decolonization is a process that must be achieved, but how and when this will happen remain key questions.
As noted above, there are two forms of decolonization: micro and macro. Micro decolonization focuses on the “mind, body, language, culture and ceremonies” (Asadullah, 2021, p. 3). At this level, decolonization serves to restore culture, ceremonies, traditions, and praxis that have been lost through colonization and works to undo these harms. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o argues that “decolonizing the mind can lead to healing” (cited in Asadullah, 2021, p. 4). Decolonization at a micro-level would also encompass the restoration of language as a means of “re-centering and healing” (cited in Asadullah, 2021, p. 4). The loss of language was one of the many assimilation tactics used by the Canadian government to control Indigenous people. Other assimilatory practices imposed through the Indian Act included strict laws prohibiting Indigenous people from practicing ceremonies that had long stood the test of time. Other elements, such as “restoration of singing, drumming, and traditional teachings”, also play an important role in healing from restored traditions (Asadullah, 2021, p. 4). Moreover, learning from Elders is a key component of micro decolonization as they are “important knowledge keepers, and they also help to ensure cultural continuity” (Hele, 2021).
Macro decolonization “involves structural and institutional change” (Asadullah, 2021, p. 3). In this form, decolonization is about changing policy and the systems they inform as a means of retaking power. Prior to colonial contact, Indigenous communities had their own political systems and effective forms of governance. A key component of macro decolonization is the sense of self-governance it would afford, along with the realization that “The authenticity of indigenous law and governance is not measured by how closely they mirror the perceived past, but by how consistent they are with the current ideas of their communities” (Borrows, 2005, p. 200). Asadullah points out that macro decolonization also “requires systemic institutional change of public services, from education to government” (2021, p. 5). This includes ensuring that non-Indigenous people have a good understanding of Indigenous cultures and the impact that colonization has had on their communities. Transfer of land is also considered to play a significant role in macro decolonization, as it did under colonization. Land is sacred to Indigenous people and interconnected with their spirituality. Alfred Taiaiake argues that achieving decolonization will require a “massive transfer of land back to the Indigenous peoples” (cited in Asadullah, 2021, p. 5).
Decolonization Contextualized for Policing
Policing practices are entangled with colonial mindsets and racialized practices. For Amanda Porter, the idea of decolonized policing “may be more an oxymoron than an ideal objective for future reform” (2016, p. 561). In other words, decolonizing policing could result in something that may not even resemble what is understood to be policing. Such a paradigm change, however, would require looking beyond the criminal justice system and current forms of policing toward alternative policing models and “community empowerment” (Porter, 2016, p. 561). Decolonized policing does not require radical reform per se, but agencies must come to better reflect cultural understanding and awareness of Indigenous communities.
Under the macro view, decolonized policing would require institutional change including redirecting authority to Indigenous communities. First Nations Policing and Indigenous Patrols are examples of a decolonial model of policing. They encompass cultural values that reflect the communities they serve and incorporate the current ideas and voices of those community members as well. Meaningful collaboration with Indigenous communities is an important step forward in decolonizing policing. This is seen in the way community-based policing focuses on relationship-building and information sharing. The micro view of decolonizing policing would require Indigenous representation within police forces and officers who are able to speak the languages of the communities they police. A balanced micro/macro level of decolonized policing would ensure that all officers have cultural-awareness and trauma-informed training to ensure understanding of the Indigenous cultures being served.
Discussion of Decolonized Policing
The blatant inequalities within the justice system tied to colonialism and the global cries for police reform of dated policing practices make decolonized policing a must. The impacts of colonization on policing in Canada demonstrate the clear need for a decolonized policing framework. While some scholars are calling to defund police and replace existing agencies with new ones, there will be no meaningful improvements within our justice system unless Indigenous communities are consulted. By looking at case studies of existing policing models that strive to promote culturally informed practices and self-determination, a better understanding of what needs to change and what is needed to achieve decolonization becomes clearer.
While the primary focus of this paper is decolonization within a Canadian context, included are case studies of Aboriginal policing programs in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. In highlighting models around the world, the goal is to gain comparative insight into what is and isn’t working in each respective country. Broadening knowledge through information sharing will be a key component to decolonizing policing, and gaining an understanding of the models implemented by other countries for a better administration of justice to their Indigenous population can help in the construction of a decolonized policing model for Canada.
Community-based policing strives to bridge the gap between community members and the police. According to the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services of the United States (COPS), “community policing has three components: community partnerships, organizational transformation, and problem solving” (Nalla & Newman, 2013). In Canada, community-based policing is important in the context of decolonization, where trust between the police and Indigenous communities is broken. For many Indigenous communities, ‘police’ is almost a dirty word. A community-based policing model should serve as an aspirational practice for realizing “policing by communities” rather than “policing with communities” (Nalla & Newman, 2013). Rebuilding trust and forming a relationship with communities will begin to break down some of the barriers and help combat any toxic elements of contemporary police culture.
The Starlight Tours was indeed a defining moment for policing practices in Saskatchewan and illustrated the need for serious reform. Starting in 2003, the Little Chief Community Policing Station in Saskatoon was run under a community-based policing model to strengthen the ties between the community and police. As a cost-saving measure, the city of Saskatoon dismantled the program in 2011 calling it unsuccessful, even though its budget was only $100,000 — which essentially indicated it was built to fail (CBC News, 2011). The effects of the dismantlement were felt largely in the community and there has yet to be a meaningful replacement program. Indigenous leader Walter Linklater has been working with Saskatoon Police Chief Russell Sabo to develop recommendations for the institution of better relations between police and Indigenous communities. Linklater states that police need to get more involved in Indigenous ceremonies to grasp what is culturally appropriate, develop more cultural awareness overall, and forge trust (Hubbard, 2004).
First Nations Policing in Canada
In 1991, the federal First Nations Policing Program (FNPP) was successfully implemented in Canada through the tripartite agreement “to provide police services that are effective, professional and tailored to meet the needs of each community” (Lithopoulos, 2007). The First Nations Policing Program was enacted as a way to respond to dissatisfaction about the pace of self determination and the inequalities that Indigenous communities face within the justice system. Two policing models exist under the Federal First Nations Policing Program: The First Nations Community Tripartite Agreement (CTA) and Self-Administered Policing. In Self-Administered Police services, First Nation communities are responsible for “developing, managing and administering all aspects of the police service” to their respective communities (Jones et al., 2014, p. 43). CTAs on the other hand, contract policing services (primarily the RCMP) to work within Indigenous communities and provide policing services (Jones et al., 2014). Although different in application, the models serve the same goals: to “(1) enhance the personal security and safety of FN communities; (2) provide access to policing that is professional, effective, and culturally appropriate; and (3) increase the level of police accountability to FN communities” (Nalla & Newman, 2013, p. 85).
In a study aimed to uncover officer attitudes regarding the effectiveness of First Nations Policing Programs in Canada, respondents were asked a series of sixteen questions related to their perceptions of the FNPP (Ruddell & Lithopoulos, 2011). All respondents agreed that the FNPP was successful in delivering culturally sensitive services that were respectful of the community’s cultures and traditions, and that the self-administered policing was reflective of community needs (Ruddell & Lithopoulos, 2011). Moreover, “53.0% of the RCMP” and “49.1% of their FNA counterparts” agreed that First Nations had an effective role in governing their police service (Ruddell & Lithopoulos, 2011, p. 13). Consultation is a crucial aspect in achieving a decolonized policing model, while improvements need to be made in this area, it is important not to discount the work being done. In concluding this study, the respondents agreed that First Nations Policing Programs are generally more effective when the officers understand cultural values and have linguistic skills that are relevant to the communities they serve (Ruddell & Lithopoulos, 2011).
The File Hills First Nation Policing Service (FHFNPS) is the first and only Self-Administered First Nations policing program in Saskatchewan. Developed under the tripartite agreement, the FHFNPS strives to “implement and maintain a level of policing that is culturally sensitive to First Nations Values” (File Hills First Nations Policing Service, n.d.). According to Daniel Bellegarde, a chair member of the Board of Police Commissioners at File Hills First Nations Police Service, Self-Administered Policing has contributed to an astounding 22% decrease in crime and a 36% decrease in homicide rates (2021). While these policing programs, along with the FHFNPS, give Indigenous communities sovereignty and self determination over their jurisdictions and prove to be successfully implemented, they certainly do not come without limitations. Funding has proven to be an ongoing challenge for many First Nations Policing Programs, which hinders their abilities to police their communities let alone promote decolonized policing models.
Aboriginal Policing Globally
First Nations Policing has been conceptualized in many different regions to better serve the cultural and historical contexts of their Indigenous communities. Australia, New Zealand, and the United States similarly to Canada, all have relatively high Indigenous populations that face similar challenges within their respective justice systems (Jones et al., 2014). The United States adopted American Tribal Policing as a response to growing crime problems on Native reserves (Jones et al., 2014). Tribal Policing allows Indigenous communities to have more control and authority of policing practices within their jurisdictions. Australia similarly has Indigenous patrols and Aboriginal Community Liaison Officers who work with the community and strive to promote more culturally relevant policing practices. In contrast, New Zealand has one police force that works at both the national and local levels and is divided into twelve districts (Jones et al., 2014). While New Zealand follows the Māori Responsiveness Strategy to incorporate Māori culture into the government, Indigenous Liaison Officers are employed to improve police and community relationships (Jones et al., 2014).
The United States
In the United States, Tribal policing formed as a response to the growing rate of crime among Indigenous communities that arose from the forceful displacement of Indigenous people in the 19th century (Jones et al., 2014). While thought to be largely autonomous and self-administered, the authority of Tribal Policing is restricted to the reservations in which they police. This has created many complexities within reservation policing and as a result, there exist various legal frameworks in which departments may be organized: “(1) Public Law 93-638; (2) Bureau of Indian Affairs; (3) self-governance agreement; (4) tribally controlled; and (5) Public Law 83-280” (Jones et al., 2014, p. 96). Public Law 93-638 remains the most common framework among Indigenous communities. Under this provision, Indigenous communities” assume greater departmental governance over policing programs” (Jones et al., 2014, p. 96). The complexities of jurisdictional matters have pushed many communities to enter cross-deputization agreements. Through these agreements, local police gain authority to enforce laws on Indigenous lands, while Indigenous communities gain increasing authority to enforce laws beyond their jurisdictions. Although many communities are reluctant to accept this agreement and give state police authority on Indigenous reserves, they nonetheless “provide enforcement agencies opportunities to better meet the needs of tribal communities” (Jones et al., 2014, p. 103).
Under the National Indigenous Law and Justice Framework, Indigenous patrols were developed as a way “to Close the Gap in Indigenous disadvantage, particularly in relation to community safety” (cited in Jones et al., 2014, p. 99). Australian states and territories have since used this framework to develop policing strategies within their respective jurisdictions that include actions plans that “focus on recruiting members of the Indigenous community to (1) educate police agencies about Aboriginal customs and traditions; (2) promote mutual understanding; and (3) better represent the communities they serve” (Jones et al., 2014, p. 100). These strategies aim to empower Indigenous communities through increased community partnership and to reduce the rate at which Indigenous peoples come into contact with the Australian justice system. In the more remote areas of Australia, Police Aboriginal Liaison Officers are deployed to compensate for the lack of police presence (Jones et al., 2014).
Unlike the jurisdictions previously mentioned, the New Zealand Police “is the only agency responsible for policing at both the local and national levels and has sole jurisdiction over all criminal investigations and law enforcement” (Jones et al., 2014, p. 96). To help reduce the overrepresentation of Māori people in New Zealand’s justice system along with improving police and Māori relations, The Māori Responsiveness Strategy was developed to increase consultation with Māori people, develop a greater capacity to include Māori people in decision making, provide increased accountability, gain a better understanding of Māori culture, and develop an internal infrastructure (Jones et al., 2014).
In accordance with these goals, Indigenous Liaison officers are employed to build and improve Māori and police relationships. Māori Wardens, similarly, work within Indigenous communities to provide community empowerment and safety at a volunteer level (Jones et al., 2014). While these Wardens are uniformed and conduct police-related duties, their work is not compensated. “As a result, the Wardens experience high turnover rates and poor job satisfaction” (Jones et al., 2014, p.105). Another strategy used by the New Zealand Police to reduce crime is Neighbourhood Support. Similar to Māori Wardens, individuals within Neighbourhood Support work at a volunteer level to reduce crime, provide support to victims and act as a bridge for the community and police. Neighbourhood Support proves “moderately effective in both the reduction of local crime and in building community support” (Jones et al., 2014, p. 107).
Table 1.1 Comparative analysis of Aboriginal policing programs
|Canada||First Nations Policing program||“(1) Enhance security and safety of FN communities; (2) Provide access to policing that is professional, effective, and culturally appropriate; and (3) increase the level of police accountability to FN communities” (Nalla & Newman, 2013, p. 85).||Federal First Nations Policing Program: Community Tripartite agreement, Self-administer policing|
|Australia||Indigenous patrols/Community Liaison officers||“(1) educate police agencies about Aboriginal customs and traditions; (2) promote mutual understanding; and (3) better represent the communities they serve” (Jones et al., 2014, p. 100).||The National Indigenous Law and Justice Framework|
|New Zealand||Indigenous Liaison Officers||Increase consultation/inclusion of Māori people in decision making, increase police accountability, develop an understanding of Māori culture, and create an internal infrastructure||The Māori Responsiveness Strategy|
|United States||American Tribal Policing||Provide Indigenous populations with more control and authority over policing practices within their jurisdictions||“(1) Public Law 93-638; (2) Bureau of Indian Affairs; (3) self-governance agreement; (4) tribally controlled; and (5) Public Law 83-280” (Jones et al., 2014, p. 96).|
While community-based policing programs and First Nations Policing services constitute decolonized policing models, they have their limitations. Funding is still one of the greatest challenges for First Nations Policing programs and service delivery. The funding requirements to run these programs are not being met by the federal government, and funding for officers, infrastructure, and equipment are out of the pockets of first nations communities (Public Safety Canada, 2020).
Jurisdiction problems remain problematic for these models as well. The authority of First Nations Policing Services is restricted to the reserves they police, yet non-Indigenous policing agents continue to police on First Nation lands. In tribal policing, cross-deputization offers a remedy but is problematic because it increases the rate at which State police forces can exercise authority on First Nation reserves (Jones et al., 2014). While self-administered policing is thought to give autonomy and self-governance to indigenous communities, the models continue to be restricted through excessive government control. For example, although the File Hills First Nations Policing Service is a self-administered policing program, they are only allowed to police to the extent that “the government sees fit” (Bellegarde, 2021). The File Hills First Nations Policing Service has to respect and obey Canadian government policing policies and their officers must be trained through the Police college.
Data surrounding the effectiveness of First Nations Policing Services and Community-based policing programs need to be evidence-based. (Ruddell & Lithopoulos, 2011). With few studies by non-governmental scholars on these areas, it is difficult to obtain the full picture of how well these programs are operating and if they provide more effective services than non-Indigenous policing strategies (Ruddell & Lithopoulos, 2011).
The impact of colonization has led to many racialized policing practices that leave Indigenous groups in Canada less well off. Racialized policing practices serve as an example of systemic racism stemming from colonial practices. The Starlight Tours, the overall marginalization and victimization of Indigenous women, and the “code of silence” demonstrate that policing agencies serve to keep the contemporary colonial status quo in place. These are among a small number of the many cases that illustrate the need for a decolonized policing model. Police are frontline and therefore the first contact with the justice system for victims and perpetrators of crimes alike. This makes it imperative that policing agents have relevant cultural awareness and be able to recognize and refrain from personal bias.
Australia, New Zealand, and the United States all have relatively high Indigenous populations that face similar challenges as Canada’s Indigenous populations. Looking comparatively at Aboriginal policing models offers greater insight into promising policing practices that are currently employed and practices that should be avoided as to not contribute further harm to indigenous communities. Understanding the decolonial policing frameworks employed by each region and the effectiveness of their implementation serves as a reminder that policing practices don’t have to incorporate colonial mindsets and racial inequalities. Policing must be decolonized, and colonial policing practices can no longer be tolerated.
Community-based policing and First Nations Policing Programs enhance community and police relationships, convey culturally appropriate services that reflect the communities they serve, increase police accountability, provide effective services, and decrease the rate at which Indigenous people come into contact with the criminal justice system. While there may be limitations to these models, the limitations are not in the practices themselves, but rather are seen through government imposition. Lack of funding, jurisdictional concerns, increased government control, and lack of non-governmental data hinder the ability of decolonized policing structures to thrive. As it stands, Community-based policing and First Nations Policing Services offer the most promising paths forward in the decolonization of policing practices. Through more autonomous control, these practices could evolve into a new and reformed policing model.
- Discuss the impacts of colonization on policing. In what ways have they shaped the policing we see today?
- What do you think Stewart (2018) means in saying the relationship you hold with the police reflects your privilege or lack thereof in society? Do you agree with this statement?
- What does decolonized policing look like to you? Would it resemble pre-existing policing models or something entirely different? In your opinion, how can decolonized policing best be achieved?
- Watch the short documentary Two Worlds Collide (2004) by Tasha Hubbarb. Why do you think the Starlight Tours went on “undetected” for as long as it did? In what ways have these events impacted the trust Indigenous communities hold with the police? Do you think this trust will ever be repaired? If so, how? https://www.nfb.ca/film/two_worlds_colliding/
- Research local policing programs (i.e., community policing) in your area and highlight some of the initiatives they are taking to strengthen community and policing relationships. What recommendations would you give these programs to better promote decolonization?
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