Common concerns about Copwatch
Many people in Winnipeg have never experienced, witnessed or heard first hand accounts of police violence. When they hear about Copwatch they sometimes respond with the following concerns:
- I know a police officer, and he/she is a good person.
- Not all cops are bad, there’s only a few bad apples.
- Police have a stressful, dangerous job, and we should respect what they do.
- Police are there to protect me, my family and my property.
It’s true that police work can be dangerous and that many police officers who join the force do so for good reasons, wanting to serve Winnipeg and help its citizens, but we also think that police officers are not above the law and need to be responsible and accountable for their actions. We seek to look beyond single events or officers, looking to systemic problems within the Winnipeg Police Service as an institution, including systemic racism, systemic violence, racial profiling, and the criminalization of racialized and marginalized people. Because of these systemic problems, as an institution the police do not protect everyone equally.
By using the term systemic, we mean that we focus on the ways that institutions work. Systemic processes are often taken for granted as normal and neutral, but they can work to favour some groups of people and discriminate against others. For example, we often assume that the justice system is blind to race, class, gender and other factors, but a white person is still more likely to have money, and it is still easier for people with money to access a lawyer.
Systemic racism is when people are kept out of or denied opportunities in society’s institutions on the basis of their perceived race, ethnic background, place of origin, or ancestry. This is not obvious racism, such as racist slurs or jokes, but built-in or unconscious racism as a result of an institution’s laws, values, assumptions, and stereotypes.
In Winnipeg, for example, obvious racism is still quite common, but many people have learned to be more politically correct. However, on a systemic level, for example, Aboriginal people and new immigrants are still much more likely to live in poverty.
Systemic violence is when certain groups of people or individuals are more likely to be targeted or to experience abuse, misconduct or violence through institutions, such as the police service or justice system, because of their perceived race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, ethnic background, place of origin, or ancestry, among other traits.
Racial profiling is a type of systemic racism in which people are targeted, or racially profiled, and considered suspicious because of their perceived race rather than because they showed any actual suspicious behaviour or signs. For example, since September 11, 2001, it has been more likely for brown people with beards to be targeted in airports without exhibiting any actual suspicious behaviour.
Racialization is a term that is used to point out that race is not a biological, genetic, unchanging, or objective trait. By using “racialized” instead of “race,” we can begin to understand that race is a social and cultural category that changes over time and in different places and is often used to discriminate.
Marginalization is the process where people end up or are pushed to the “edges” of society or a lower social standing through reduced access to power or resources, such as food and shelter. People who are marginalized are less likely to be equally represented in politics or public dialogue and have fewer chances to participate in public society.
Safety for Whom?
Police do not protect everyone equally. For many, the police are a symbol of protection, safety, and security. For many others, systemic racism and violence are everyday experiences and as a result they do not trust the police or depend on the police to protect them, their families, or their property. Rather, police are seen as dangerous themselves. Mistrust and fear of the police can lead people into conflict with the law that can result in arrest or being jailed. This is called criminalization: when people are pressured as a result of racism or inequality into actions and behaviours that the dominant society considers to be criminal. Mistrust or fear of police can also lead people to react to police in ways that increase tension and suspicion, sometimes leading to their injury or death at the hands of police.
Copwatch acknowledges that in our society there are few alternatives to the police for protection. We do not condemn any person who chooses to call the police in emergency situations. Winnipeg Copwatch’s aim is to work together to hold police accountable for their actions, to inform people about their rights, and ultimately to end police misconduct.
In 2007 the Manitoba Human Rights Commision organized consultations with members of racialized communities on the topic of policing in Winnipeg. The Commission reported that several themes emerged from people’s testimonials, including:
- the systemic nature of racial bias in the Winnipeg Police Service
- the abusive treatment by police based on Aboriginal ancestry
- sexually abusive treatment of Aboriginal women by police
- the need for community-based policing
- racial bias in police response to requests for service and in contacts with police
- fear that many members of racialized communities have of the police
- need to educate members of racialized communities about their rights
- the importance of anti-racism education
- the need for a more effective public complaints mechanism
You can also read the full report.