Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in policing won’t save Black people in crisis


By Phi Doan and Fitsum Areguy

Though the long-term impacts are still unfolding as the pandemic tapers off, mental health professionals have been sounding the alarm about the silent pandemic for over a year. The disruption and uncertainty around the pandemic have led to increasing rates of social isolation, anxiety, depression, as well as substance and alcohol abuse.  

This elevated risk holds true for Black people facing mental health challenges in Waterloo Region. On July 5, 2020, 15 Waterloo Regional Police Services (WRPS) officers descended on Abidisalam Omer, a Black Somali man with a documented history of mental illness. 

Security footage of the arrest shows multiple officers with guns drawn surrounding Omer who sat in his parked car. Suspecting that he had a gun, they broke his car window, dragged him out, and held him down while one officer punched him repeatedly. 

Earlier that month, Waterloo Regional Police Chief Bryan Larkin was featured in an episode of TrueNorth TV, the media apparatus for Waterloo-based tech start-up incubator Communitech to respond to the crisis of police legitimacy in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Larkin mentioned WRPS’s Equity, Inclusion and Diversity (EID) unit. 

That strategic plan had officers undergo anti-Black racism and anti-racism training. It represents the more substantive piece of its EID strategic plan that also includes an HR initiative to ensure a diverse workforce and leadership.

 “We welcome that dialogue in those conversations because I think in the end, people see that we’re trying to make a difference,” Eric Boynton, sergeant in the EID Unit, said. “Although it’s a marathon, and we’re making steps in the right direction.”

However there is little evidence that this type of training would have any tangible results. In 2019, a meta-analysis of 492 studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology was conducted.

“Our findings suggest that changes in implicit measures are possible, but those changes do not necessarily translate into changes in explicit measures or behaviour,” the paper’s authors wrote. “Implicit measures can be changed, nut effects are often relatively weak.” 

For members of the force that fail to grasp the training, Boynton said there are procedures in place. 

“We do have our professional standards unit that will look into it, and if there’s any concerns in the community about police officers conduct that can be directed to the [Office of the Independent Police Review Director] or complaints can be made with our service as well, so that’s how we would handle that,” Cst. Johnson said.

In the months following Omer’s arrest, two investigations into the Waterloo police officers use of force in his violent arrest resulted in a finding that the force used was “reasonable, appropriate and lawful.” 

 Regional police held a meeting with the local Somali community, who were traumatized by Omer’s arrest. When the results of the investigations were presented earlier this year, Omer became “the individual”—nameless and stripped of his humanity.

In her lecture, “What’s wrong with Black folk? Trauma, Black psychiatrized madness, and the state’s response,” Idil Abdillahi, assistant professor at Ryerson University,  touched on the language used by police which is harmful to Black people. 

“The language of care camouflages the systems of containment that pathologize, criminalize, incarcerate, and otherwise harm Black people in Ontario,” Abdillahi said. 

Abdillahi used the term ‘service deserts’ to refer to the “isolated and inaccessible communities outside of [downtown cores], which function as sites that reproduce social, emotional, economic, spatial and visible isolation.” In addition, people that live with mental health issues are excluded from their communities. 

“Mental health struggles, or madness, is marked by disposability and psychiatrized mad Black people are particularly vulnerable to death across a range of contexts that places [them] in extremely vulnerable circumstances. Often psychiatrized mad Black people are evicted from Black communities … their outsider status is fueled both by their condition, the response to their condition, and their Blackness,” Abdillahi said. 

In Waterloo Region, these service deserts exist in the pockets of neighbourhoods where more low-income, Black and immigrant communities live. These are the same communities that were hit hard by both the first and second waves of COVID-19. 

Laura Mae Lindo, MPP for Kitchener Centre, said that when police suddenly pull out of neighbourhoods, like they did in Victoria Hills where Omer lives, without ensuring there is something else to fill the vacuum they have created, the community feels the brunt of this burden. 

“What I’m worried about is that the community will start to feel intense guilt and shame that they weren’t able to do more. And it’s not their place to do that. They’ve done everything that they can, they’re asking and pleading for help, and they also deserve to feel safe,” Lindo said. 

Victoria Hills resident Omar Said said that even though he was a long-time friend of Omer, he and Omer had split up over an argument. 

“The fact that they don’t feel safe isn’t because there’s something wrong with Mr Omer,” Lindo said.”It’s because the whole system has let him and the community down.”

Larkin promised the Somali community that the WRPS would work closely with correctional services and other systems to ensure Omer would get the support he needs. Yet, Said could not confidently say that he saw those supports materialize. 

“No, they never support him. I haven’t seen it,” Said said. “I don’t know where he sleeps, I don’t know what happens.” 

WRPS did not return insideWaterloo’s request for comment on what kinds of support they were able to facilitate for Omer.

“The police aren’t responding to calls about him anymore,” Said commented, “and when they do respond, they often look the other way.” 

By failing to ensure that culturally appropriate mental health supports were available for Omer while simultaneously ignoring calls concerning Omer’s behaviours, the WRPS effectively isolated Omer from his own community. Laura Mae Lindo, who is also the NDP critic for anti-racism, colleges and universities, said this approach is consistent with how their system operates.

“From the minute they decided, on their own, that they needed subject matter experts to review Omer’s arrest, and those subject matter experts were police because it’s only about use of force, they stopped caring about Mr. Omer,” Lindo said. 

“And as soon as you stop caring about Mr. Omer, you’re not trying to make sure that mental health practitioners are providing him with the care that he needs. You’re not making sure that you’re dealing with the root causes of whatever he’s dealing with, and you’re leaving the community in a horrid position where the lack of care for Mr. Omer is becoming dangerous in and of itself.”

Larkin has acknowledged in the past that officers should not be the ones responding to mental health calls. However, that hasn’t resulted in any significant changes to how the force approaches these situations. The EID unit serves to present a friendly and progressive face to the WRPS, but fails to acknowledge the intersection of race and access to mental health supports. 

Looking over past incidents and data, Black residents were still found to be overrepresented in officers’ intelligence notes; as well as overrepresented in the number of use of force incidents. The stats around intelligence notes follows the similar pattern of carding years ago, which WRPS have stated they would have academics analyze the data as to why. Meanwhile, WRPS have defended themselves around use-of-force by noting that they only began collecting this data recently, and that their second quarter report showed a decline in incidents.

The Waterloo Region Record reported that since 2007, Waterloo Region police officers have shot seven people. Trevor Graham (26) and Beau Baker (20) were fatally shot. Both had documented mental health challenges. Most recently, an unnamed Black youth struggling with mental health issues was shot by Waterloo police. 

Despite all this, WRPS have been reluctant to make any real changes that would see funding taken away from the service and put towards solutions that actually address the root of the problem, thus ensuring the police end up as first point of contact in situations they have admitted to having no expertise in. 

Following a rash of violent incidents in the US and Canada last year, the federal government began funding pilot programs for body worn cameras, despite lack of consistent evidence showing that they reduce police brutality. When the pandemic forced the Region of Waterloo to reduce their budgets for the year, WRPS still fought back for a $8 million increase before settling for $5 million, only to later find savings amounting to $3 million. 

“There is no other area that I can think of where we would give money to an organisation who does not have expertise to do work in that particular area,” Lindo said. “So, we have local police officers, including Chief Larkin, who say ‘we don’t want to respond to these calls, we are forced to because somebody calls 9/11 and there’s no other option.’” 

Larkin recently announced that the WRPS was looking into adopting a new triage system for 9/11 calls, reiterating a talking point used in 2020 during meetings with the Somali community following Omer’s arrest last year.

He also said he will advocate for legislative change under the Mental Health Act to “allow other services — like paramedics — to apprehend someone experiencing a mental health or addictions related crisis.” WRPS did not return insideWaterloo’s request for details regarding how and when the triage system will be implemented. 

The ACB Network and ReAllocateWR are local groups who have long advocated for culturally responsive mental health supports to supplant police.

Solutions Journalism reporting bursaries are supported by Journalists for Human Rights abd the Solutions Journalism Network and made possible by funding from the McConnell Foundation.