Heightened emotions are to be expected after two high-profile judicial decisions in the United States involving White police officers were let off charges related to the deaths of two unarmed Black men, 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and 43-year-old Eric Garner in New York City.
Brown reportedly had his hands in the air as a sign of surrender when he was repeatedly shot and killed. Garner, a father of six, who had allegedly been selling cigarettes on a city sidewalk, died from asphyxiation during a chokehold by a police officer.
Protests arose across the U.S. as well as here in Canada and in international cities even farther away. Even the leader of the so-called Hermit Kingdom of North Korea, Kim Jung Un, criticized the decisions.
Should it then have come as a surprise that Dr. Alok Mukherjee, chair of Toronto Police Service Board, would have an interest in these matters making headlines worldwide, especially when we have our own issues of police abuse of power as it affects the local Black population?
After Dr. Mukherjee posted a meme created by the activist group Occupy Wall Street on his Facebook page that gave out statistics suggesting more Americans are killed annually by U.S. police than from terrorist acts or Ebola, the local police union here called for his resignation.
The TPS chair has already removed the meme from his Facebook page and offered up an apology and explanation, saying it was “shared as a topic of interest, intended to encourage conversation and reflection… (and) was not intended to be a negative commentary in any way on members of our police service or on our practices”. He also said he “regretted the reaction” caused by the post.
While the police union is within its right to criticize the posting by the chair of the TPS board, we reject the call for Mukherjee to resign.
The TPS board functions as an intermediary between the police and the residents of this city. It could not have escaped the attention of the police that there is a problem of mistrust and an unhealthy level of tension in their interaction with Black and brown people, especially those who are young and male.
The growing militarization of our police forces and the regularity with which they target particular members of society is a deeply troubling matter.
We do not have to look to the United States for the names of men and women of colour who have been the targets of overly aggressive interactions that have led to injury or fatalities. Neither do we have to look to the U.S. for the number of times that officers who have a reputation for bias have been involved in these types of incidents yet have been let off by the courts.
If the police can’t seem to tell a law-abiding Black person from one with criminal intent, then the police will have to forgive the general Black population for not being easily able to distinguish a fair-minded police officer from one who abuses his power.
Segments of society defined along lines of racial identity fear they are in mortal danger when confronted by individuals appointed to maintain law and order. The numbers bear that out; a Black man in this city may be as much as 10 times more likely to be stopped and questioned by police than a non-Black individual. Furthermore, with shootings such as the recent fatality of Sammy Yatim, 18, the tendency to shoot first and ask questions later is beyond frightening.
As the Urban Alliance on Race Relations put it so eloquently in a letter in Share last week, the pattern of violence against unarmed persons of colour means that the social contract for fair treatment is broken.
As a city, we cannot continue to expect healthy social growth and development if this pattern of abuse continues. If the chair of the police board can see that this is a matter that should invite discussion, then we should appreciate that the board is not just there to justify the action of the police but also to allow for public input regarding how law and order are maintained. Citizens expect as much.