Indigenous distrust of police persists
Surveys show that Indigenous people are less likely to trust and more likely to fear police than non-Indigenous people. But advocates suggest a solution to breaching the invisible wall dividing both sides might be as simple as bringing them together.
Betty Krohn has never been in trouble with the police.
The 53-year-old woman from Regina, Saskatchewan works at the Indian Metis Christian Fellowship, an urban Aboriginal ministry that tries to meet the spiritual and social needs of Aboriginal people there. She doesn’t drink alcohol, she was raised to respect police, and she has no criminal record. Despite this, she says police still stop and question her for seemingly no reason.
“You get a bit uncomfortable with it after a while, because it’s like — how many times does this have to happen?” she says.
Krohn isn’t alone.
“We’re trying to humanize stakeholders in the community, at-risk populations and the police. We need police to be our first line of defense, not our last.”
A survey by Maclean's magazine and Discourse Media published in 2016 showed that the odds of an Indigenous student from the sampled population being stopped by police were 1.6 times higher than a non-Indigenous student.
The story doesn’t just resonate with students. It is also familiar to Indigenous people Krohn works with, many of whom report assaults and injuries resulting from altercations with the police. “I’ve heard different stories,” says Krohn. Stories, she says, such as “Yeah, I got picked up into the drunk tank, I don’t know why they slammed me against the car so hard.”
While physical injuries heal, the survey suggests that intangible wounds -- like loss of trust in police and even fear of them -- continue to resonate long past the incident that caused them.
But Indigenous advocates say it doesn’t have to be this way, and suggest that a solution to breaching the invisible wall dividing both sides might be as simple as bringing them together.
By the numbers
Between September 2015 and January 2016, Discourse Media and Maclean’s magazine conducted a survey of more than 850 post-secondary students in Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg. The numbers concluded that the surveyed Indigenous students were less likely to trust police and more likely to fear them than non-Indigenous students.
Some 37 per cent of the Indigenous students surveyed say they don't trust police officers, compared to 14 per cent of non-Indigenous students. The numbers also reveal that 23 per cent of Indigenous students surveyed say they fear police, compared to 13 per cent of non-Indigenous students.
These results were strongly dependent on age, gender and if the student had been stopped by police. Trust in police declined with age, whereas fear of police was greater for women. Trust of police declined and fear of police increased after at least one police stop.
How police interactions affect student trust in police
Indigenous students were less likely to trust police and more likely to fear police officers than non-Indigenous students, especially after being stopped by police. Age and gender were also important factors.
In a separate survey by the University of Regina in 2015, approximately 80 per cent of more than 400 respondents ranked the overall quality of service by the Regina Police Service as very good to excellent. Indigenous respondents, however, were more likely to disagree that police were sensitive to the needs of their ethnic group.
- Respondents’ overall trust and confidence in police represented as score between 0 and 25
- Indigenous respondents’ average score: 18
- Non-Indigenous respondents’ average score: 21
Source: University of Regina, 2015
The survey reported on respondents' overall trust and confidence in police. Fewer Indigenous respondents were shown to trust police compared to non-Indigenous respondents.
For Betty Krohn, trusting police is an issue she’s wrestled with since childhood. She remembers police escorting her from her home after social services took her from her parents. Those lingering memories, combined with stories she’s heard from other Indigenous people in the course of her work, eroded her trust in police.
“I think if I was having problems they’d be the last people I’d go to. Why? Basically, because you hear so many stories about how they’ve treated other people,” she says.
From victim to advocate
Fear and distrust of police by Indigenous peoples is something Scott Clark is familiar with both professionally and personally.
Clark is the executive director of ALIVE, a group that advocates for urban Indigenous people in Vancouver, B.C.
The Discourse Media-Maclean’s survey results rang true for Indigenous peoples in Vancouver, Clark says.
At-risk Indigenous youth, in particular, often report being stopped by police for seemingly no reason, says Clark. Sometimes police just question youths, other times, however, he alleges police get physical.
Clark says that while loss of trust in police and increased fear of them are both casualties in such interactions, the future intangible impact is profound. “We lose lives, we lose hope, we lose futures. It causes a lot of harm to a family and to a community,” he says. “We need to give these kids hope.”
For Clark, the issue has personal significance.
He moved to Vancouver from the Sc'ianew First Nation on Vancouver Island at age 16. He was stopped and questioned by police one night and asked to produce his identification. He reached for it in his inside jacket pocket and was immediately assaulted by a police officer, he says.
"I was beaten pretty badly and I remember he even charged me too," Clark says. "It’s not just me. This is a story that is too common even still today."
Almost four decades later, Clark encourages police and young Indigenous people to defuse the us-versus-them mentality.
One method is through a program called NASKARZ, which stands for Never Again Steal Cars, a partnership between Ray-Cam Cooperative Centre, Vancouver Community College and the Vancouver Police Department (VPD).
The program brings together police, automotive staff and at-risk youth, including Indigenous youth, to build and refurbish cars at college facilities.
According to Clark, a high number of at-risk Indigenous youth in Vancouver were involved in car thefts. The program gets youth off the streets and introduces them to a trade, which some participants later pursue. The Insurance Corporation of British Columbia credited the program with a 71 per cent drop in car thefts in Vancouver over several years.
But the biggest payoff was eliminating the barrier between the youth and police, Clark says. “That animosity we hear a lot of, that’s what we're trying to break down. We're trying to humanize stakeholders in the community, at-risk populations and the police,” he says. “We need police to be our first line of defense, not our last.”
The VPD declined to respond to the survey numbers because they didn’t pertain to Vancouver. But VPD media spokesperson Randy Finkham acknowledged that the VPD is involved in several initiatives with the city’s Indigenous community including NASKARZ, Pulling Together, which is an annual canoe journey with Indigenous and RCMP paddlers, and inner-city soccer games.
“Although we still have a lot of work to do, we are proud of the relationships we have built,” Finkam says.
For Betty Krohn, working with police at volunteer events such as bike rodeos allows her to get to know them, but that feeling of uncertainty never goes away.
“People are probably a little bit more comfortable with them because they make an effort to get out and be at places where people can see them,” she says. “I know they're not all bad. But you still have that anxiety and fear.”
Indigenous people who have complaints against police don’t have a specific process for them, but there are options.
PIVOT Legal Society provides legal advocacy to the marginalized and disenfranchised on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
There is no Indigenous-specific complaint process for the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), but complaints can still be filed through the VPD office directly or through the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC), says PIVOT lawyer Doug King.
The OPCC does community outreach to make it as comfortable as possible for Indigenous people to file complaints with them, King says.
“What that really means practically, though, is pretty suspect, as any additional help they would provide someone in filing a complaint is still contingent on that person reaching out first to contact the OPCC,” he says.
There are also agencies in Vancouver that support Indigenous clients in filing police complaints, including the Aboriginal Front Door Society and the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre. Depending on the complexity of the complaint, the groups may ask PIVOT for help, King says.
Dealing with the RCMP complaints is more complex, King says. The RCMP has a body similar to the OPCC, but it is based in Ottawa and only takes complaints by mail. Indigenous people living on reserves or outside of Vancouver could possibly get help from their local band or community advocates.
Anyone wishing to make a complaint against the RCMP would go through the RCMP’s Civil Review and Complaints Commission.
“There is no separate process for Indigenous people,” Cpl. Janelle Shoihet, Media Relations Officer, RCMP, told Discourse Media in an email.
Are collaborations between police and Indigenous people enough to stem fear and distrust? What more needs to happen?