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Canadian Universities Should Divest from Policing Interests

Canadian PoliticsEducation

Riot police stand on guard during the G20 Protests in Toronto, June 26, 2010. Photo by Jason Hargrove/Flickr.

On May 29, in response to the protests across the United States sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called on Canadians to “stand together in solidarity” against racism and any kind of racial hate. He acknowledged that “we have work to do as well in Canada” but stopped short of saying what, exactly, needs to be done.

What does that work look like in a society like Canada, with its long and thoroughly documented history of police oppression and abuse of Indigenous peoples and people of colour? The institution of policing is irrevocably embedded in an ugly history of colonization and white supremacy—there are widespread calls for police reform across North America, but can an institution so deeply entrenched in systemic oppression ever be truly “reformed”?

Universities have been divesting from fossil fuels because the science is clear that emissions from extractive industries are a principal cause of global warming. These investments contribute harm to humanity. We think there is a similar compelling argument to be made regarding university partnerships with police and law enforcement.

Last year, a study conducted by a team of researchers from Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, and Washington University in St. Louis found that fatal police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in America. The study found that the risk of death at the hands of police is highest for black and Indigenous men. While no comparable study exists yet in Canada, a team of CBC researchers who spent six months assembling a nation-wide database of deaths from 2000-2017 as a result of police actions found that black and Indigenous people were disproportionately overrepresented in the data. They found, for instance, that in Winnipeg, Indigenous people comprise just under 11 percent of the population, yet accounted for two thirds of deaths at the hands of police. Further, the researchers found that of their total data sample, almost 16 percent died from restraint, just like George Floyd.

Over the past several years there have been calls across Canada for universities to reform; to act in line with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to indigenize, decolonize and to fundamentally change in order to end the oppression of Indigenous and anti-western knowledge. At the same time, many of these same universities are investing in professional programming and credentialism to directly support the institution of policing. Bachelors and professional degrees in policing and public safety have emerged across the country–many designed to provide serving officers with the credentials to advance their careers for salary and promotion purposes. Other university (and college) programs purport to train the next generation of aspiring police officers. Even more insidiously, many of these same programs employ both active and former officers to teach their policing courses, effectively allowing the institution of policing to quietly reproduce itself, along with its problematic biases, under the guise of “higher education.”

We cannot allow this to continue if we are to act in accordance with the spirit and principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The mandate of liberal arts education to provide critique of social institutions and to challenge biases is lost in the credentialism which acts as a cash-grab for chronically underfunded social sciences and humanities faculties–ironically the same faculties championing indigenization and decolonization practices. Their failure to see the irony is both shocking and self-serving.

Justice For Regis - Not Another Black Life rally and march in Toronto, May 30, 2020. Photo by Jason Hargrove/Flickr.

Less than twenty-four hours after former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, the University of Minnesota issued a public letter which announced that they were formally cutting ties with the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), stating that they would no longer rely on the MPD for their security services. The university president issued the edict in response to a student petition. This public disassociation represents an important symbolic and concrete movement by the university to demonstrate its support for its black students, staff, and the anti-black racism movement more broadly. We suggest that Canadian universities must similarly rise to the challenge and take concrete action to stand behind and with our black, Indigenous, and otherwise racialized students, faculty, staff, and community members to confront the underlying racism and colonization of police violence.

We assert that in solidarity with Indigenous peoples, with decolonization, with anti-black racism and anti-oppressive practice, universities across Canada must divest themselves from investment in programs and training that profit directly from the institution of policing. To continue to partner with police, to employ police as instructors, and to profit from the broken and dysfunctional policing system is to be complicit in every police killing of a racialized person, every police abuse of an Indigenous woman, every stop and frisk, and every blind eye turned to racialized hate and harm. Universities writ large have abdicated their responsibility to teach critical thinking, to require evidence for practice, and to challenge oppression as they have moved to prop up the institution of policing with rank credentialism in return for profit.

We call on university researchers to immediately cease partnerships with police organizations and corporations that profit from police technologies. Research on policing must be arms-length and independent from police services and for-profit corporations like Axon Enterprise Inc.—one of the world’s largest suppliers of police body cameras (the company has near complete control over the police body camera market and also makes Taser weapons).

University Ethics Boards must be tasked with ensuring that any such research involving police is appropriately arms-length and university researchers should end the practice of legitimizing police and corporate-funded research by attaching their scholarly credentials to it. We should be as suspicious of police and corporate-funded research on policing as we are of research funded by drug-companies, realizing that the funders have a vested interest in the outcome of such studies and profit from findings which promote the investment of tax dollars in policing and in surveillance technologies.

Make no mistake: investment in police body-worn cameras didn’t prevent George Floyd’s death (the officer who killed him was wearing one) and independent controlled studies are inconclusive on the question of whether cameras prevent police violence, but they do make a lot of money for Axon. In February the company reported to its shareholders that in 2019 revenue grew 26 percent to $531 million in earnings and announced its plans to “accelerate” growth in 2020.

Some of our university colleagues may well defend policing programs and research with police as working toward improving policing in order to reduce violent deaths and excessive force and to improve police-community relationships. We accept that their motives may be good, but the reality is that there is no evidence of systemic reform in policing and much evidence that studies may be used to legitimize and prop-up existing police practices, painting the negative outcomes as the result of a “few bad apples.” Until Canadian police services take seriously the calls for Truth and Reconciliation, and the demands of Black Lives Matter and respond with sweeping, foundational reforms or an overhaul of the institution altogether, universities have no business concocting band-aid solutions for a sick and rotting system that continues to both maintain and reproduce white supremacy. To continue to do so is an affront to every black and Indigenous student, staff member, and community member and is nothing short of a mockery of any real efforts to decolonize and indigenize the Canadian academic landscape.

Stacey Hannem is an associate professor of criminology.

Christopher J. Schneider is Professor of Sociology at Brandon University and author of Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media (Lexington Books, 2016).

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