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Police striving to deal with diversity

Elaine O'Connor

Policing in a city of more than 770,000 residents is hard work, but in a diverse multicultural city like Ottawa, it is also delicate work.

Police forces nationwide battle the public perception that officers are knowing or unwitting practitioners of racial profiling. Most recently, Toronto police came under fire from a Toronto Star investigation that concluded the force treated blacks more harshly than whites.

Here in Ottawa, several youths in the Citizen's Youth Crime series have recounted incidents where they or their friends felt unfairly targeted by police, whether due to their age, status as street youth, or racial or ethnic backgrounds.

It's a perception Ottawa police are aware of, and one they are working to combat.

In March, Ottawa police Deputy Chief Larry Hill acknowledged at a national policing forum that officers in this city are not immune to the tendency that exists in institutions – including schools, hospitals, businesses and law enforcement – to stereotype people according to race.

"Racial profiling is a significant issue both inside the community and inside the police services," Deputy Chief Hill told the media after the conference. "Our members are not racist, but we are no different than any other organization. Do stereotypes exist? Yes. Do things happen because ... we stereotype people? Yes. So if we're going to call that racial profiling, then yes, certainly it occurs in our police service as well as other police services."

However, while they acknowledge such challenges, Ottawa police have also been working actively to educate officers and develop community liaisons that help limit institutional stereotyping.

Deputy Chief Hill, for example, heads the Community and Police Action Committee (COMPAC), which joins community representatives and police from across the city to foster cross-cultural understanding. The group can facilitate mediation meetings in which community members with complaints about police conduct can discuss their concerns with officers.

"It's definitely needed, because it's a learning opportunity for both sides," says Sonia Brereton, a COMPAC board member and chairwoman of the city's equity and diversity advisory committee.

COMPAC has been instrumental in creating the Critical Incidents and Critical Situations (CI/CS) coalition of police and community members, which since last year has been available to stage interventions in the event of a police-community crisis (for instance, when a violent interaction between police and a racial group results in ongoing tension or conflict.)

"Prior to that, situations would arise and a lot of it was misunderstanding," Ms. Brereton says. "A lot of parents and young people, when they were given the opportunity to sit down and talk about how they were treated or mistreated, it really gave information to the police for them to know exactly where they're going wrong, and also for the community it was a learning experience."

Cross-cultural outreach and education is another aspect of city policing that helps reduce friction between police and ethnic groups and police regularly conduct seminars in schools and ESL classes.

The Diversity and Race Relations Unit was founded in 1995 to ensure the police respond sensitively to all community groups, particularly marginalized ones, through outreach.

"We're engaging in a proactive community dialogue to deal with issues before they become a crisis," says Nancy Worstfold, acting director of community development for the Ottawa police.

"One of the things we're concerned about is under-reporting of certain crimes, in youth on youth crime. Building relationships is about prevention, but it's also about crime reporting, because youth are involved on both sides" she says of the outreach model.

Examples of police outreach abound: A police mentoring program for at-risk youth run by a Diversity and Race Relations outreach worker pairs minority youth and police officers, while a "Meet the Heat" event at Lansdowne Park in June drew 200 youth, many from diverse cultural groups.

An ethnically and racially diverse police force is one of the best tools for ensuring equitable treatment of community groups, and to that end, the force offers a $1,500 educational scholarship to visible minority and aboriginal women interested in a career in policing in the city. The force maintains a policy of equal opportunity hiring that, according to its mission statement, "readily acknowledges that a diverse population is best served by a similar diversity of police and civilian membership."

Anyone looking to join the Ottawa police must demonstrate, in interviews, the ability to value diversity "to work effectively with a wide cross-section of the community representing diverse backgrounds, cultures and socio-economic circumstances."

In addition, new police recruits are required to undergo training in race relations and prevention of workplace discrimination and harassment and complete a half-day placement with various community groups to learn more about certain ethnic and cultural groups.

Out in the streets, the force's 20-odd community policing centres are designed to be accessible and to forge relationships with area residents and work on crime prevention.

According to a Canadian Race Relations Foundation report on Racism and Policing, such initiatives "provide police officers with new capabilities for acting with a more complete, nuanced and critical understanding of a neighbourhood's residents and their community lifestyles and cultural characteristics" and "make it possible to bridge the gulf between citizens of diverse cultures and police."

The Ottawa police force also lays claim to the oldest community-based police hate crime section in Canada, which was established in 1993.

But, says Ms. Brereton, who is also the community co-chairwoman of the National Capital Alliance on Race Relations, there is more to be done.

"There's still a lot of learning (that) has to be done," she says. "No institution is perfect, so there's still that room for more learning, but it has to be on both sides, the community as a whole and the police."

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