Right now, people in North America are feeling uncomfortable, angry and afraid. The death of George Floyd while in police custody has ignited civil unrest and protest across the United States and Canada. Some police are reacting in shock, feeling profiled and unfairly scrutinized because of a number of terrible incidents. Many in the public are wrestling for the first time with complex and polarizing issues such as systemic racism, free speech, public protest, and privilege.
I have personally been deeply aggrieved to see what has been occurring south of the border. It’s heart-breaking and appalling to witness the violence and unrest. As a police officer, I fear for the safety of my colleagues and identify with the countless members who are doing good work in a dangerous and difficult job every day on behalf of their communities.
I also identify with the public who are angry and yearning for change. As sad as I am about recent events, I can not say I am shocked. That sense of discomfort, worry, and fear that people are feeling right now: It’s an old and familiar feeling for me. As a person of colour, and a minority in my community, I have felt this way my entire life.
I was born into a mixed-race family in the 80s and spent my entire youth in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Growing up as a Black kid in BC was not easy. I experienced isolation and racism on a daily basis. Elementary school was the worst. My mother made countless trips to the principal’s office to address the bullying; I was moved to different schools. Nothing worked.
Of course there was the everyday name calling and disrespect concerning my different appearance. But there were other, darker incidents. One day the police were called when two boys decided to practice martial arts on me. They were proud of their black and brown belts and they used the associated knowledge and skill to kick my legs black and blue. I just stood there and took the beating. The teacher I reported it to immediately after the incident ignored it. Later, the principal both asked what I had done to instigate the attack and questioned the origin of the injuries. The female member who investigated at that time didn’t have a lot of the procedural options we have today to properly address such issues. There were no real repercussions for the boys. My mother was asked to stop sending me to school in clothing that exposed my legs as the bruising was making other people feel uncomfortable; she declined this request.
The first time I remember being called the “N word” occurred in Grade 3 or 4. The word was delivered by a fellow classmate with such vitriol that I was shocked. I didn’t fight back when he spat in my face; I just took it. That one I didn’t tell my parents about.
And then there was the day I had enough. It was Grade 6. My class was wrapping up a sporting event on the school field and a female classmate called me that ugly word again. I decided to fight back and I called her the worst thing I could think of: “freckle face”. Our teacher turned on me and reprimanded me in front of the entire class. He later admitted he’d heard the racial slur but had decreed that I should learn to keep silent and accept such abuse.
When I decided to become a police officer, for the first time in my life, I came to truly understand what it means to hold power. I was suddenly granted the ability to take away someone’s liberty and the responsibility to utilize appropriate force. I took this very seriously; I never wanted to forget what it was like to be my former, externally powerless self. I have come to accept my past experiences at the hands of authority figures who chose to abandon their responsibilities invested in that authority. I believe these experiences have helped me become an empathetic cop.
Sir Robert Peel, widely held to be the father of modern community policing, said that, “…the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”
Yes, police hold power, but so too do our lawyers, judges, teachers, and principals. The bottom line is that our current circumstances are not just a policing issue. They are an issue of our classrooms and halls of justice; they are an issue of the executive board room and the bank or grocery store around the corner from your home. We all carry a responsibility to contribute to the interests of community welfare. It begins with openness, acceptance, kindness, and dialogue.
The overt racism I experienced in the community as a child has simmered down to the under-the-surface kind in adulthood. The thing is, pots left to simmer periodically boil over, as we have recently witnessed. My hope is that when the dust settles following this recent flashpoint, that people do not easily forget their current feelings of unease, but that they instead use those feelings to change our society for the better.
I’m hopeful that reasonable people will not let their current justifiable anger about the cases of violence and destruction cloud their desire to engage in dialogue and resolve our larger, underlying issues. I hope that our Canadian police continue to emphasize the value of community policing and that those civilians holding power in our communities do what they can to contribute to a more equitable society.
– RCMP Sgt. Veronica Fox, BA MA DPS