By PATRICK HUNTER
The very unusual case of a Black police officer facing charges of misconduct because he failed to investigate racial taunts against has, to say the least, left us perplexed. The idea that someone could be penalized in this way has us shaking our heads.
Briefly, York Region Police Constable Dameian Muirhead, as reported in the Toronto Star, was “charged with three counts of misconduct for his handling of a farm party turned ugly, where he was allegedly subjected to repeated racial slurs and told, ‘I would love to see that guy hanging from a tree’.” Despicable comments, no matter to whom it is addressed, but it takes on additional impact when addressed to a Black person.
In a letter published in Share last week, the Association of Black Law Enforcers (ABLE) expressed concerns about the treatment of Constable Muirhead. One of the main areas of concern was the “investigative process that led to the charges against P.C. Muirhead”.
ABLE also noted that the treatment Muirhead received in dealing with the public was “not a rare experience for Black officers”. In this case, ABLE believes that Muirhead acted professionally given the conditions he faced.
There are also others who have expressed concern that for Muirhead to investigate the racial slurs against himself would represent a conflict of interest. This is a view that I share. So, if this is how such matters are stipulated in the Police Services Act, or in departmental regulations, that has to be changed.
But, I want to take another view of this. We know that the public can lodge complaints against the police through the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD). Police officers cannot lodge complaints against their own service through the OIPRD. How does a police officer lodge a complaint against a citizen, especially when they make hateful remarks like those which are alleged?
If there are no provisions for this kind of behaviour, then there should be. It may be through an arrest on a possible assault on a police officer. Of course, if someone abuses you by calling you names in a public place, can you lay an assault charge against that person?
There is a reason why, in a way, I support this measure against Muirhead. As ABLE noted in its letter in Share, this is a not a rare occurrence for Black officers. In the same way, I would imagine that thousands of employees face similar behaviour in their workplaces, not only internally but from customers and clients on a daily basis. For the benefit of customer service, many are forced to “suck up” the abuses they may receive from a belligerent client without being able to take any action. In some cases, the employee may be penalized, not unlike what Muirhead is facing, rather than the organization losing what may be a valuable customer.
But we also have a problem, many of us. Notwithstanding the humiliation, to say the least, that we feel as a result of an abusive encounter, how often do we follow up by making a formal complaint? Even within the context of such an attack within the confines of the workplace where there should be processes for dealing with harassment and abuse, how often do we just “let it go”?
We are often accused by those in power that we may be too sensitive, or words to that effect, to what they consider to be a light-hearted matter. We, in our quest not take these things too seriously, would rather endure the pain and humiliation of racist jokes with a grin even though they often cut deeply.
In 2005, for example, the Centre for Equity in Health and Society published a report through the Canadian Race Relations Foundation on some of the systemic racism nurses faced on the job. Among their findings was that many racialized nurses were placed on some of the worse shifts, or even more penalizing work conditions, as a result of their making a complaint against discriminatory treatment.
I placed a call to the York Regional Police to find out the outcome of Muirhead’s disciplinary hearing but, at the time of preparing this column, I had not received a response. Under the circumstances, I do hope that Constable Muirhead is not penalized.
It does, however, bring to light a key weakness in the way we sometimes deal with racism on the job. The tendency to shrug off verbal assaults is one of our challenges. I have often contended that unless an incident is specific, that is, our race is specifically mentioned as the cause of an action, many of us do not always understand when we are subjected to a discriminatory action or event. It is not always the first thing that comes to mind. But, there are times when it is more than obvious, yet we do nothing about it.