Councillor Charmaine Williams should be lauded for her progressive stance on policing, but she shouldn’t stand alone
(This editorial originally appeared in The Pointer on Jan. 6, 2019. It has been republished in light of events sweeping across the globe.)
In 1959, a white author named John Howard Griffin consulted with a dermatologist and was given large doses of a drug. He spent up to 15 hours each day under an ultraviolet lamp. In the end, he could pass as African American.
This was the start of the Texas-born writer’s six-week journey into the heart of darkness – as a Black man in the American South.
Griffin had a remarkable life. As a boy, he had gone to France on a music scholarship, thanks to the artistic gifts he shared with his mother, and later studied French literature. After plans to study psychiatry there were upended by the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, he eventually became a medic and joined the French resistance, helping smuggle Austrian Jews to England during the Holocaust.
After his name was put on a Nazi death list he fled Europe and returned to America. In 1941 he joined the Army and served in the South Pacific, on one of the Solomon Islands, toward the end of the Second World War. Just before the war ended a blast of shrapnel from an enemy air raid left him blind for a decade, before he spontaneously regained his sight in 1957.
But prior to that he had contracted spinal malaria which temporarily left his legs paralyzed.
He had converted to Catholicism and took up writing as a vocation, possessing, as a result of his extraordinary experiences, a level of empathy and compassion that would make Griffin a crucial figure in the American Civil Rights Movement.
More than 300 years of slavery was finally being confronted across the country, particularly in the South, where it had flourished and where deeply ingrained attitudes among most white people toward Blacks created a complex racial dynamic.
Though African Americans faced brutal racism daily and were still viewed as an inherently inferior group by many whites, struggling with much higher rates of poverty, illiteracy and incarceration, many who resented the Civil Rights Movement felt the problems faced by the descendants of slaves were created by themselves.
The cognitive dissonance, refusing to accept that it was the centuries-long incarceration of Blacks in a slave state that led to profound disadvantages, is, according to many academics, rooted in two common attitudes: blame, as Blacks became easy targets to explain social and economic hardships faced by many whites; and denial — it was difficult for many to understand that the very attitudes they possessed made it incredibly challenging for Blacks to find their footing in society.
As groups like the KKK and politicians such as George Wallace confronted attempts by Blacks to free themselves from oppression under an apartheid-style police state, segregation, the obsessive societal isolation of people from each other based on their race, became an acceptable solution. Millions of African Americans could not be removed from the country, so in the early 20th century “one-drop” laws were passed in most southern U.S. states. They codified the legal racial hierarchy in places like Alabama, where Wallace would become governor and where, if a citizen had even “one-drop” of sub-Saharan African blood, they were classified as Black, forced to live in places with hardly any services, second-class schools, if any at all, and few economic opportunities.
Wallace and Griffin represent the complexity of bias and assumptions about racial characteristics. Both were white, born in the South, raised middle-class and Christian—Wallace was a Methodist, Griffin eventually became a Catholic, part of the devout order of Lay Carmelites, which under its particular devotion to Mary requires a focus on community and ministry—had served in the military during the Second World War and were academically inclined.
They both believed their culture was superior, as Griffin later wrote. But his transformational experiences forced him to understand things differently.
At 15, when he first arrived at his French boarding school, he was “delighted” to see Black students there but appalled that they ate at the same table with their white classmates. He later said that was simply not how he had been raised. It never came to his mind to question segregation.
After the blindness of his formative years was confronted by his remarkable experiences in the world, he wrote, during his decadelong loss of vision, that those without sight “can only see the heart and intelligence of a man, and nothing in these things indicates in the slightest whether a man is white or black.”
Meanwhile, after the war, Wallace began a political career that included four terms as governor of Alabama and his failed efforts to become the U.S. president. In 1963, during his inaugural speech as governor, he made his infamous statement: “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” His career was marked by a resistance to ending segregation while he fought any effort by public institutions to openly reflect the demographics of his state.
A few years prior to the start of Wallace’s governorship, Griffin had realized the only way change would happen in the South was if white citizens understood how damaging the policies of racial stereotyping were. His firsthand findings, after taking a drug that altered the colour of his skin, created a seminal book titled Black Like Me, published in 1961, and adapted into a movie shortly after.
Griffin dove head first in the segregated waters of the deep south – Mississippi – where racial divide and ugly history was everywhere – police dogs, assassinations, lynchings and KKK rallies. It’s where angels (and Black men) feared to tread.
His book exposed the evils of racism and shook the sensibilities of a nation still reeling from generations of segregation, civil war and slavery.
Black Like Me was a prelude to the riot-torn 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement was founded, the Civil Rights Act (1964) was enacted, and Martin Luther King, the father of both, was gunned down at a motel in Memphis.
But Griffin’s book had begun to build bridges. Historians and biographers have noted that Griffin managed to do what Black civil rights activists and writers couldn’t; he punctured the myth that Blacks, plagued by the excuse of victimization, experienced constant racism according only to them.
His intense, trembling prose clearly captured the constant hateful glares by white people and the use of the word they employed over and over again that “leaps out with electric clarity,” he wrote, the way a whip destroys not just the skin, but the spirit.
Ten million copies of the book were sold, changing the attitude of many, who began to realize the impact on a group constantly targeted because of skin colour. Black Like Me is also still heralded as a seminal call for advocacy and action, by all members of society, not just the oppressed.
The tension and fear from the black-white divide still rears its ugly head today. This divide seems to have ratcheted up during the Donald Trump presidency.
But Canada is different. Good different.
We didn’t fight a divisive war over whether human beings could be kept as slaves. Our underground railway helped thousands of American men and women flee slavery. And despite our own problems with racism and the continued treatment of our First Nations communities, Canada is supposed to be a post-multicultural society.
But are we so different?
Division rears its ugly head here, too.
In Brampton and Mississauga, crime is a problem and for many, race is perceived to be a major factor.
Some residents here, as evidenced on social media and in routine online posts on commenting and message boards, believe the dramatic demographic shift has brought higher rates of violent crime to Brampton. The constant posts, almost always by anonymous writers, don't hide the feeling that crime here is being caused primarily by young Black men and that carding was a good and necessary check on them.
Meanwhile, many critics of Peel police believe the force has alienated and deeply scarred young Black men, and has criminalized them by using racial-profiling practices such as carding.
Nine percent of the population was Black, but from a five-year period (2009-’14), data shows that a disproportionate number (25 percent) of the nearly 160,000 carding checks performed by Peel police, which patrols Brampton and Mississauga, were done on them. African-Canadians were three times more likely than whites to be stopped and checked.
Those who support carding, including some current and former police officers, have told The Pointer that curtailing the practice has led to an increase in violent crime because criminals no longer fear they might be randomly stopped.
Tension and confusion over carding, known as street checks in Brampton and Mississauga, led to the former Ontario Liberal government releasing a strict policy on carding in 2016, preventing racial profiling and the improper use of a policing tool that is supposed to be for the gathering of data as an approach to community-based intelligence.
The Liberals also tapped Justice Michael Tulloch to do an independent review of the new regulations. His 310-page report was issued the last day of 2018, and on Friday, he and three lawyers held a press conference in Toronto to discuss it and answer questions. The Pointer was there. So was new Brampton City Councillor Charmaine Williams.
If we drill down to the core of Griffin’s book, it was about walking in another person’s shoes, and feeling what a Black man felt every day of his life in the southern U.S. while they struggled for the protection of their basic human rights.
Williams, a mother of five, doesn’t need to visit a dermatologist for skin-altering drugs to pass as Black.
Councillor Charmaine Williams at a doorstep during the fall election campaign.
She knows firsthand what it feels like to be Black. She said she is ready to pick up the torch from the report’s findings and take it back to her colleagues on council. She has even offered up an invitation to Justice Tulloch to present his recommendations in person at our city hall.
One of them is to ban carding as an intelligence gathering tool. He provides evidence from forces across Ontario that shows carding as an intelligence gathering tool is ineffective in the fight against crime.
More important, he has gone to great lengths to explain, in his report and in person, that anyone who thinks a lack of carding or its curtailing leads to a rise in crime, is mistaken, as borne out in the evidence.
The criminals among us might think the new carding regulations allow them to freely terrorize our streets without fear of recrimination, but that attitude could only arise if police are not doing their job.
Tulloch painstakingly detailed the many ways officers can confront criminals on the street, approach them, question them, detain them and take them into custody under suspicion of a range of activities, from carrying weapons or illegal drugs to the possible involvement in crimes or plans to commit a crime.
Proper, active community policing is the best weapon against crime, says the judge. And sophisticated intelligence gathering that has nothing to do with carding should be used by police to help keep streets safe. Members of the public and officers work in a deeply intertwined partnership to ensure this. The force needs internal competencies and proper resourcing to be effective. And residents have to trust police with crucial information and to build key community partnerships. When all of this happens, criminals are put at a severe disadvantage.
If police fear approaching people on the street because of a misperception that they are not allowed to do so, or because a barrier has been created, the thugs and gangbangers win.
People who still think carding the way it used to be done, targeting one group in particular, is the only way to handle street crime, regardless of the immense harm it does to alienated Black youth, will never be convinced otherwise. They refuse to acknowledge the rampant misconduct within the force. Statistics showed Peel police, over a recent five year period, had by far the worst rate of misconduct of any force in Ontario, three times higher than the next worst force. About one third of officers, 640 out of the roughly 2,000 serving in Peel police, were disciplined for misconduct over the period. But diehard police supporters will not consider the impact poor performance and incompetence are having on crime.
Williams thinks everyone will benefit from a focus on community safety and police partnerships, especially if the relations with the Black community, the indigenous and South Asians in Peel create a lasting trust and shared commitment centred on making Brampton an inclusive, thriving and vibrant city.
Supporters of carding have blamed recent spikes in crime and gun violence on the police’s inability to perform street checks. Tulloch dismissed the argument outright.
Many jurisdictions cutting back street checks saw no increase in crime. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, in 2017 (first-year the new regulations were enforced) Ontario recorded the second biggest “decrease” in homicides among provinces.
But reports about homicides in Peel this year make it hard for people not to associate the rise in violent crime with the curtailing of carding, especially when outgoing chief Jennifer Evans made that unsubstantiated claim in the summer. Critics have pointed out that her claim indicates Evans doesn’t understand what carding is, how it was supposed to be used and the fact nothing prevents officers from doing now what they used to do under a street check scenario, as long as people are told their rights.
Tulloch hammered this point home last week — there is nothing preventing police in Ontario, under the law, from approaching people on the streets, while using their investigative expertise and knowledge of policing procedures to ensure safety. Evans is either uninformed or has a reason for putting misleading suggestions out into the public.
In November she called for an extra 55 officers in 2019, but a number of policing experts have pointed out this won’t make a dent in crime across two cities with a combined population of about 1.4 million people. They say to effectively reduce crime, better policing techniques are needed, the use of sophisticated technology and intelligence gathering capabilities, cultural competency from a diverse force that speaks the language, so to say, of the place where it operates and, most importantly, building trust throughout the community are the types of progressive policing approaches that will prevent crime.
Williams wants to use the report as a catalyst to break down barriers built up over the years between police and the community. She likes the fact Tulloch talked about education, not just on the police force, but within the community.
Tulloch’s recommendation to eliminate all unneeded street checks is balanced and indisputable.
A Peel police spokesperson said the force is still reviewing the recommendations.
The force is being pressured by the board that oversees it to become more reflective of the two cities it serves and by community groups critical of its lack of diversity: only 13 percent of officers are visible minorities, while Brampton’s population is 74 percent visible minorities. What’s galling are examples of blatant discriminatory practices when hiring, or in promoting officers. A 2014 case involved Staff Sgt. Baljiwan (B.J.) Sandhu, a highly decorated officer of South Asian descent filing a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. He was denied the opportunity to enter a promotional competition for a job as inspector. The tribunal said Sandhu's "race, ancestry, place of origin, and/or ethnic origin" were reasons he was denied a promotional opportunity and he was "subject to discrimination because of race."
An external diversity audit to look into the inner workings of the Peel force – its hiring practices and charges of systemic discrimination – was supposed to be issued last year. It’s expected to be presented to the police services board early this year.
The civilian police board called the ruling on Sandhu’s promotion, "troubling," but Evans did not issue a public apology to the officer and failed to address the rights’ tribunal finding that her force devalued policing in the South Asian community.
Tulloch's report targeted the sort of entrenched police culture displayed by Evans' refusal to take responsibility for the way her force treated Sandhu.
Brampton is one of the fastest growing cities in Canada, and its most diverse. The question of police street checks has been a front-burner issue in this city, especially during the past municipal election. Williams’s dogged community work got her elected to council where she can now use her public forum to try and bridge the divide between cops and community.
The Pointer lauds Williams initiative to attend the Tulloch press conference. He is trying to help resolve an issue tearing at the fabric of this city. We only wish more of her colleagues on council joined her. She shouldn’t carry that weight on her own. She has many pressing issues to lead on and tens of thousands of constituents, with a range of priorities, to serve.
While a few community groups have been persistently vocal, routinely pressing for answers at police board meetings as the carding issue became an alarming concern of residents, the absence of Brampton leaders on the issue over the past half-decade calls into question their understanding of elected representation. Other than former mayor Linda Jeffrey, who supported a board move to request that carding be stopped (which Evans refused), council members have been mostly silent on the issue.
Maybe they think it’s a Black problem, or maybe they think it’s a problem only in the minds of Black people. It’s a problem for all of Brampton, regardless if you are Black, white, brown or polka-dotted.
Tulloch urged more local politicians and community leaders and media to get involved. His background more than qualified him for the task put before him. He is past member of the Board of Directors of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, Tropicana Community Services, the Jane-Finch Community Legal Aid Clinic, past-president of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, as well as a past-president of the Caribbean and African Chamber of Commerce.
Tulloch told police it’s past time to get educated on when (or if) they can stop a person on the street, and he insisted that by following the rules, it wouldn’t impede their ability to do their job. The Tulloch report states bluntly: carding just didn’t do what it was supposed to do – lessen crime.
He concluded that carding takes up considerable time and effort that should be used in more effective ways (a notion supported by progressive police chiefs across the province who long ago stopped the use of carding) and shows “no verifiable benefits relating to the level of crime or even arrest.”
What it does do is strain relationships with the citizens it serves.
A return to community-based policing is needed, says Howard Morton, a member of the Law Union of Ontario and past head of the SIU, which investigates police when a member of the public is harmed in an encounter. He wants to see the police return to their roots as community-based crime fighters.
He said the need for a police presence in the community is desirable, but it means ditching the “Intelligence Led Policing” policy which is based on an assessment and management approach to risk. This only leads to fear and resentment and carding, he said. The result: a lack of trust.
Replacing intelligence-based with community-based policing (the principle first laid down by Sir Robert Peel in 1829), will deter crime and disorder, noted Morton. The nine principles laid out by Sir Robert create a proactive partnership with community members and identifies and solves neighbourhood problems at the grassroots level. The result: trust and teamwork.
People are pouring into Brampton each year, and growth problems infest the city, in housing, gridlock, and widening gaps between rich and poor, etc.
But the good news is one problem has been solved. The recognition that carding is unproductive and harmful, is shared by the mayors of Brampton and Mississauga. Patrick Brown and Bonnie Crombie now sit on the police services board. Brown is particularly proud of the fact he fought against carding as leader of the PC opposition party at Queen’s Park, and doubled up his position in his successful run for mayor. He is a big fan of the police and said they should be provided all the tools necessary to solve our uptick in violent crime, “but that doesn’t include carding.”
During Crombie’s last term on the police services board, she was the lead critic of it. She showed something no other board member before had, an understanding that fighting for public safety above all else and the protection of her constituents, sometimes means standing up to a backward thinking chief.
Evans not only supported the practice, but ignored Crombie’s successful motion to stop it.
Evans is retiring, and her replacement will be picked soon by the board. The Pointer hopes a progressive candidate wins the job – one who is determined to solve what ails the third largest municipal force in Canada. We need a chief who discards carding and embraces the findings from the coming diversity audit. She or he should strive for real systemic change that eliminates even the hint of discriminatory practices. This community deserves better.
Hopefully, the current government at Queen’s Park doesn’t backslide when it comes to the practice of carding.
It is a burden on officers and takes them away from the real policing that needs to be done.
The Tulloch Report, if accepted in full by Premier Doug Ford, will end the harmful form of carding – not with a period, but an exclamation point.
It shows it isn’t needed in a pluralistic society where police and the public should be working to earn each other’s trust.
John Howard Griffin’s book was lauded for its honesty. But it also attracted haters, and he was criticized to such a degree, he eventually went into hiding for a period.
The southern U.S. isn’t the same place Griffin encountered as a white-Black man 60 years ago. But the racial animus is still there, close to the surface. And a number of fatal police shootings of Black men across the country over the last five years have led to calls for sweeping reforms, usually met with resistance by police forces.
Brampton isn’t the same as it was 60 years ago, either. But its diversity isn’t reflected in the police force serving it.
The legislation that has justly curtailed harmful carding practices, and Tulloch’s report, are a one-two punch that could lead to a new day in the relationship between police and the public.
As Tulloch concluded, the “social cost” of carding was just too high.
As chair of the community safety advisory committee in Brampton, Councillor Williams plans to focus the discussion on issues raised in Tulloch’s report.
She should be lauded for her attendance in Toronto. It’s too bad her council colleagues didn’t join her. Everyone needs to get educated on the fundamentals of policing, and how police and community need to pull together in the near future.
The end of race-based carding is long overdue.
John Howard Griffin changed his skin colour and went on a quest to see and feel and comment on the racial divide in his country. He also sought out “the divine” in the American experience. He found both.
Now that the Tulloch Report is out, it’s time both police and civilians in Brampton looked for the divine in our community.
We’ll only find it by trying to understand each other, then creating lasting partnerships that keep us all safe.
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