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'We have urgent work to do': New book by U of T's Kent Roach on why Canadian policing needs to change

(Photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Kent Roach has thought a lot about policing throughout his lifetime. He even aspired to join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) as a young boy. 

But rather than donning the red serge, the professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law has spent his career extensively studying policing – often from the perspective of an insider.

That includes everything from participating in court interventions to serving on public inquiries and task forces, including the Ipperwash and Air India inquiries. He has also served on the Council of Canadian Academies expert panels on the future of Canadian policing models and policing in Indigenous communities.

Kent Roach

“There is often an instinctive idea that our problems are not as bad as in the United States, but we have urgent work to do, to improve policing in in Canada,” Roach says.

After the police murder of 46-year-old, George Floyd, a Black resident of Minneapolis. in the spring of 2020, Roach began writing his latest book, Canadian Policing: Why and How It Must Change (Irwin Law Inc. 2022). It looks at how policing needs to be less violent and discriminatory, better governed, and more effective.

“The book is for the general reader who is interested in what goes wrong in the Canadian criminal justice system, and what we can do to make it better,” Roach explains.

For example, Roach says there are many cases where an individual in Canada was fatally shot for refusing to drop a knife.

“We have to find a new way of helping people who are in mental distress,” he says, adding that his eldest daughter is a mental health nurse.

“I know the police have a difficult job to do, but over-policing is most dramatic when it results in police-related deaths that could be avoided.”

He adds that innovations where mental health professionals work with the police are not as robustly funded as core policing activities.

“How can we improve police governance, break down these silos to have a seamless and better response to community safety?” he asks.

As a lawyer and an expert on constitutional law, Roach is well aware of the legal remedies available for violation of a person’s Charter rights, but he argues in his new book that we need to find better ways to prevent violations before they occur – and figure out ways to stop repetitive violations.

Roach has also worked extensively on issues related to Indigenous Peoples in the criminal justice system. He has appeared pro bono before the courts, including representing Aboriginal Legal Services in R. v. Golden. The 2001 Supreme Court of Canada decision placed new restrictions on police strip searches to prevent unreasonable searches. However, he says he was disappointed to learn that some police services, including the RCMP and the Toronto Police Service, have been slow to reduce their use of strip searches.

“I've always been aware of the over-imprisonment of Indigenous Peoples, but they are also disproportionately represented among crime victims. In recent years, that's more visible through what we've learned about residential schools and [through] the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls,” says Roach, who has previously written about crime victims and returns to these issues in the book. 

Canadian Policing: Why and How it Must Change by Kent Roach

“It’s a vicious circle because over-policing makes it difficult for the police to get the support of the community when it comes to investigating and solving missing persons or crimes. That’s an issue of policing effectiveness.” 

Roach says there has also been a steady decline in Indigenous police services since the 1990s, noting they are significantly underfunded.

Even so, many of them are foward-thinking.

“We can learn from Indigenous approaches,” he says, noting that Winnipeg’s Bear Clan Patrol combines peacekeeping and medicine. “Non-Indigenous police services are often just starting to recognize connections that Indigenous peoples have long appreciated.” 

Roach adds that Indigenous communities should be allowed to decide what approach they want to take to ensure their own community’s safety.   

“A police service for Nunavut would be very different than a police service for an Indigenous community in rural Saskatchewan.”

As Roach points out, Canada is unique among democracies in viewing its national police force – the RCMP – as a national symbol, an image further imprinted by actor Paul Gross’s portrayal of the polite and honourable Mountie in the 1990s television series, Due South. But Roach says Canada must reconcile the RCMP’s colonial origins and continued colonial presence, particularly in Nunavut.

“I would close-down Depot [Division], which is where all RCMP officers are trained. We should do it for a variety of reasons. One is the colonial legacy – it’s where Métis leader Louis Riel was hanged after an unfair trial. It’s the most paramilitary of all training centres for police officers in Canada.”

Moreover, Roach says officers must leave their communities to complete 24 weeks of training in a single location: Regina.

“If the RCMP is going to continue local policing, it needs to think about how it can keep people in their own communities.”

Connection to community is a reoccurring theme when it comes to police effectiveness. Roach was research director for retired justice Gloria Epstein’s report, “Missing and Missed: Report of the Independent Civilian Review into Missing Person Investigations,” which addressed the police response to missing, racialized men in Toronto’s gay community who were later found to be murdered by serial killer Bruce McArthur.

“One of the recommendations Justice Epstein makes, and I agree with her, is that police are often not connected with community resources they need in order to do their job better,” Roach says.

The book is the second in what Roach describes as a trilogy on Canadian criminal justice. The other two include his forthcoming book on lesser-known wrongful convictions and 2019’s Canadian Justice, Indigenous Injustice: The Gerald Stanley and Colten Boushie Case (McGill-Queen's University Press), which was shortlisted for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for political writing.

Roach will also launch a database on wrongful convictions in Canada, a project he began with law colleagues and students.

“I've always taught my first-year criminal law course with a look at police powers early on,” he says. “I think that that's how most people experience the law – when they encounter a police officer and in the way that that police officer conducts themselves.

“I think change is possible. A lot of this really does boil down to better and firmer governance of the police. In the end, the police are what we the public allow them to be.”

 

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