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York Region Police officer Dameian Muirhead in his York region home on Feb. 24, 2021.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In an extraordinary move to highlight anti-Black racism within law enforcement, four York Regional Police officers appeared at a public police board meeting on Wednesday to tell deeply personal stories of racial discrimination on the job and detail how it has impaired their health and career prospects.

The officers have decades of combined policing experience, and all identify as Black. They said they decided to bring their concerns to the board after failing to secure meetings with police brass.

“We just wanted an audience to see if there was some way to move forward and were told ‘no way,’” said one of the officers, Constable Dameian Muirhead. “We were left with no option but go to the board. And I have to give them gratitude for hearing us out.”

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Understanding how racism becomes systemic

By Zoom, Constable Muirhead told the board that policing was his dream job until a racially charged incident in 2011. “A member of the public suggested that I should be lynched,” he said. “Even though I was hurt and disgusted by their behaviour, I remained professional and did my job. The real hurt came when York Regional Police sided with the person who made fun of my skin colour.”

Days later, he arrested one of the people involved in the racist exchange for a different incident. When that person made a complaint of unlawful arrest, York investigators charged Constable Muirhead with neglect of duty and discreditable conduct. Constable Muirhead countered with a lawsuit. The charges were dropped.

“They never attempted to resolve the issue,” he said. “They never took a serious look at institutional racism at the institution.”

More recently, he said, he has been passed over for promotions that went to white officers with far less experience. He said he’s currently on leave for post-traumatic stress related to his treatment over the past decade.

“I’m requesting this board do an independent audit of York Regional Police brutality and anti-Black racism,” he said.

Detective Constable Neil Dixon said his first experience with racism in law enforcement came when a police academy coach told him he wasn’t good enough to be a police officer because of his Jamaican accent.

He’s been on long-term disability since 2018, when, he said, two white officers detained him while he was undercover. When he identified himself as a fellow York officer and showed his badge, he said, the officers refused to believe him. “Despite all this effort, I was still not believed to be a police officer because of my Blackness, which led to a situation where I felt I was going to be killed by my own police service.”

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A special constable, Vernley France, said he once overheard a supervisor telling an offender that “Black people are slow and mostly criminals.” Another supervisor uttered a racial slur demeaning Black people in his presence.

The fourth officer, who has been a constable with the service for 10 years, declined through his lawyer to provide his full name to The Globe and Mail. At the meeting, he chalked up lost career opportunities and health issues to systemic racism and anti-Black racism at work.

“I can say that systemic racism, anti-Black discrimination and racial discrimination are very well present in the York Regional Police,” he said.

After the officers’ statements, Chief Jim MacSween thanked the men and said he wanted to work with them on their concerns. The force, he noted, has recently adopted an internal inclusivity strategy and given anti-racism training to all officers. “We won’t cease in our efforts to ensure this workplace is free of the racism, discrimination and systemic bias wherever it finds itself,” he said. “And I want to thank you all once again today for coming forward. And for sharing your stories. I know that was difficult, but I do appreciate it very much.”

One retired Toronto police superintendent watching the proceedings online said the chief’s sentiments didn’t go far enough. “I don’t want to be a negative messenger, but it pained me to hear the officers’ accounts and further to hear the platitudes from the chief,” said David McLeod, who worked on anti-racism initiatives for much of his 35-year policing career.

In 2003, Mr. McLeod was among a group of senior officers who polled fellow Black officers on life within the force and submitted a report to chief Julian Fantino highlighting the use of racial profiling.

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“What these officers did is extremely courageous,” he said. “By the time an officer gets to the point where they feel the need to expose things so publicly, it’s the result of intense frustration over trying to bring it to the attention of supervisors, commanders, chiefs, without success.”

Former Toronto police board member Hamlin Grange said he’s never seen an officer appear before a police board in such circumstances, but said it aligns with emerging attitudes in organizations across the board. “When I talk to racialized employees, they are standing up and speaking loudly and clearly about their experiences,” said Mr. Grange, a diversity consultant. “What these officers are talking about is a reality for a lot of Black officers across the country every day in this country. The question is, are these organizations prepared to do something about it.”

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