As a police recruit five years ago, Lisa Deveau learned to do all the cop-show things: shoot, fight, pepper-spray, tase. She emerged ready to take on mean streets and violent calls.
But the calls she encountered as a rookie constable brought challenges she’d never trained for. People on the streets proved to be more troubled than violent, in need of health care rather than handcuffs.
“As an officer, I was dealing so much with people in mental-health crises, and I had no training in it,” said Constable Deveau, currently on leave from a large municipal police force that has authorized her to speak publicly as long as she doesn’t identify her employer.
“People have this idea of policing as dealing with crime and laying charges all day long. And we really don’t. We deal with homelessness, we deal with addictions, we deal with mental health. And we’re not equipped for it.”
Constable Deveau and a like-minded group of retired police, academics, community organizers and physicians are now mounting an effort to overhaul Canadian police training so that it better reflects the realities of the job.
Dubbed the Coalition for Canadian Police Reform (CCPR), they hope to stamp out the kind of brutality and bias that has come to characterize interactions between officers and racialized populations and led to the murder of George Floyd last year by a Minneapolis police officer. Ensuing international debate has nurtured a movement to eliminate North American policing entirely.
The CCPR and its supporters have a different take: Policing is salvageable, but only with a major overhaul.
“I don’t believe abolishing the whole thing will get us where we need to go,” said Jamil Ibrahim, chairman of the Somali-Canadian Cultural Society of Edmonton, who supports the coalition’s work. “We need to look into the structure and create high national standards for our police.”
The CCPR’s push to overhaul police training took on new significance last week after a Montreal police officer was filmed kneeling on the neck of a Black teen, prompting comparisons to the death of Mr. Floyd.
The video only lasts 90 seconds and doesn’t show whether the teen was injured in the encounter. Last year, there were calls to ban Montreal police from using any neck-restraining holds, but the department defended the technique as a safe method of subduing a suspect.
Police are reviewing the incident amid demands for an investigation.
One of the CCPR’s founders, former Winnipeg police chief Dave Cassels, has started giving presentations showing some deficiencies in current police training. In one PowerPoint slide, he compares the training of his former colleagues with that of hairdressers.
“Here in Alberta, a hairdresser needs a two-year apprenticeship program before they can even qualify for the exam to make them a hairstylist,” he said in an interview. “Meanwhile, in Quebec and other provinces, you can become a police officer with between 15 and 24 weeks of training.”
It’s a simple contrast to illustrate a serious point: Police training across the country is uneven and inadequate, he says.
“The entry-level training of police officers today is very traditional, very paramilitary,” Mr. Cassels said. “It lacks current and relevant subject matter. Quite frankly, from my experience, the experience of others and from research, I’d say it’s completely out of date.”
He said studies several years ago by the now-defunct Canadian Police Sector Council (CPSC), a federally funded non-profit, found some consistency across the country for education in traditional topics such as marching, physical skills, pepper spray, tasers and firearms, but very little coherence in the teaching of social skills.
“Recruits are not prepared to deal with today’s relevant issues,” Mr. Cassels said. “Things like racism, bias, the diversity of Canadian society, the impact of Indigenous colonialization, understanding mental illness, understanding marginalized groups – there’s barely any training on any of this.”
The CCPR’s goal is to form a professional college, along the lines of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, responsible for setting national training standards for every officer in Canada.
Constable Deveau sought to address this gap in her training by scaling back her police duties to focus on getting a master’s degree in social work. During her studies, she researched de-escalation training across the continent and found that while governments often stipulate minimum training hours for shooting and striking, they don’t generally have requirements for de-escalation and conflict resolution.
In Canada, she looked at more than 20 rural and urban police departments and found that half offered little or no de-escalation and mental-health training.
“Police training needs to account for the individuals’ humanity in a mental-health crisis,” she said.
The CPSC had consulted with roughly 200 police forces across the country and devised standard competencies for officers, but much of its work ended with federal budget cuts in 2013.
While the council highlighted the need to harmonize training, political will was lacking. Public Safety Canada doesn’t have the legal jurisdiction to align policing standards, and persuading every province to unify law-enforcement needs is an exercise in frustration.
“You have significant jurisdictional challenges right off the bat,” said Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, which represents 60,000 officers with 160 police forces. “What province is going to cede their constitutional authority over policing to the federal government?”
Mr. Stamatakis says he supports the idea of improved policing standards, but says the work can be done through existing structures.
What exactly would nationalized training consist of? Opinions diverge. University of Western Ontario criminologist Laura Huey said there’s a woeful lack of research on what actually works in police classrooms.
“I’ve seen the Toronto Police Service college course list and they teach community engagement, anti-racism, all these important topics,” she said. “But guess what, we don’t know what works and what doesn’t. How can you create national standards when you don’t have any baseline research on what you need and what is effective in terms of delivering that training.”
Advocates for national standards say Canada can take ideas from Britain, where the College of Policing sets training and ethical guidelines for all officers. Created in 2012, the college has taken the position that recruits need to hold degrees.
For Dr. Huey, the international comparisons don’t work. “[Britain] has a federalized system of about 43 police services for the whole country,” she said. “It’s much easier to deal with.”
The British college does, however, touch on an aspect of police reform that former senator and judge Murray Sinclair has been advocating for as far back as the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry that investigated the circumstances surrounding the shooting death of Indigenous activist J.J. Harper by a Winnipeg Police officer in 1988.
“I think that the process of recruiting people into the police generally doesn’t have enough safeguards in place to ensure that they are rooting out people with racist ideologies,” he said in an interview. “Many forces think that they can train police officers to have good character, or that people will clear their thinking of racist ideology, when, in fact, much of that is already embedded by their own experiences or their own public education.”
That belief, he says, in the importance of recruiting the right people has only grown through his leadership of landmark inquiries into residential schools and police discrimination in Thunder Bay.
Mr. Sinclair said he has talked to Mr. Cassels about the coalition and supports the idea of single national training requirements, but recruitment needs to be part of the equation.
“If we’re going to look seriously at establishing standards, we need to talk about how officers are recruited, appointed and fired,” he said. “That is the crux of the issue, in my view.”
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