On Saturday July 14th, I signed up to attend a community consultation on Strategic Priorities for the Ottawa Police Service for the coming years. I attended at the request of a friend, an anti-torture activist who is desperately trying to convince the police force to stop the new policy that would give a taser to every police officer in Ottawa.
I agreed to attend not just because she asked me too, but also because for some time I’ve been thinking of ways to improve accessibility in Policing. Also, because I wanted to be a white face bringing up racism against people of colour.
Institutional Racism in the force is a problem that is starting to be talked about by more people not directly influenced by it, as it should, and is a major issue that needs MORE attention than it is currently getting. A related issue however is Institutional Ableism.
A recent review of fatal police interactions in Canada shows that most people killed by police are disabled. Something like 72% of those killed in police interactions were shown to be mentally ill or to have substance abuse problems, which is itself also considered a mental health issue.
Police are often called as first responders in the case of mental health crises. They are called when people feel uncomfortable because someone isn’t acting neurotypical enough. I’ve had cops called on me for taking my medication. It’s not uncommon for police to encounter disabled people and for those interactions to end badly for disabled person.
Among the biggest risk from cops are autistics, Hard of Hearing/Deaf, cognitive disabilities and mental illnesses. The main thing all these disabilities have in common is that they lead to the victim not responding “properly” when faced with cops.
It’s not uncommon for people who are Hard of Hearing to not hear what is being said to them and so end up shot or tasered for failing to head orders. Orders they were never even aware of having received.
It’s rare for police to be conversant in any type of sign language, meaning that communication is difficult. The cop can’t make themselves understood, and the victim has no idea what is going on. Even when they do understand what is going on
It’s not uncommon for police arresting Deaf people to put their hands in handcuffs behind their backs. This would be akin to having a cop put duct tape over your mouth.
For autistics, our normal behaviour can be misinterpreted as guilt or nervousness: avoiding eye contact, stimming behaviour, sensory overload, any of these could cause Police to escalate a situation to the point of being fatal. Imagine you are experiencing sensory overload, it’s too much, you are in physical pain, and in comes a group of flashing lights, loud piercing sirens, followed by people yelling at you to what? Stop having a physical response to pain? To stop being autistic?
When it comes to tasers, disabled people are significantly more likely to face severe consequences if tasered. The electric shock causes your muscles to seize and your body to fall to the floor – for those of us with osteoporosis, or bone density issues due to medication, this could mean broken hips. While broken bones are painful, a broken hip comes with a lot more risks of mortality, complications, and so on.
People with weakened hearts, also known as almost anyone with a severe illness, are more likely to have a heart attack. IF you take medication that may affect your heart health, you could be at higher risk of death.
And what about hearing aids or cochlear implants, both of which can put you at a higher risk of death when exposed to the voltage of a taser.
Attending this event was a source of great anxiety for me. Earlier this year I had and interaction with a local police officer that left me triggered and terrified. I had noticed a terrified looking woman in my hallway talking to security. While I knew the super with them and knew him to be a decent guy, the whole scene made me seriously uncomfortable. Two white men, facing a woman of colour and arguing with her. It didn’t sit right and as soon as I put down my purchases, I went back into the hall.
I didn’t really know what to do, but I couldn’t just sit idly by, especially once I realized that police were on their way. When we were alone for a moment, I asked if she wanted me to stay with her and help her talk to the police. She said yes, and I went to intercept the cops before they came through the fire doors and told them that she had asked me to stay and help act as an advocate.
I was left with one officer while the other went to go talk to the woman. I had originally meant to try and put the cops in a light hearted or relaxed mood, figuring that the best outcome would come if they weren’t already on the offensive. My friendly-helpful greeting and attempt at bonding over common heritage was instead met with instant hostility. Something about his responses, stance, made me instantaneously on alert. I was scared, and not just for myself. He was going in already angry, already aggressive, and defensive. What could I do. I could direct that anger at myself? If he was mad at me, perhaps he would be distracted enough to let his calmer seeming partner take the lead. I also didn’t want to do anything though to make him think he was in danger, except perhaps politically. So I informed him that part of the concern was because 1 in 2 people killed by cops is disabled. He exploded at me, yelling angrily at me about being lumped in with them while storming off towards his partner. I called out that I hadn’t been that I was giving him a fact that needed to be considered.
He stormed off and was left on the other side of the fire door, essentially denied the chance to act as an advocate despite it having been requested and despite it having been framed as an accessibility request.
I felt weirdly trapped in that moment. On the one hand I didn’t want to leave them alone with them, but on the other I was scared that if I went in, it would escalate the situation which would put the couple in more danger than me. The super caught on to my dilemma and with a quick nod at me he followed them into the room..
I stood there paralyzed for a moment while the realization hit me that I had made a cop pissed off with me. Someone who had my name, phone number, and address. Someone who clearly worked and responded to calls in my neighbourhood. All it would take is one more person to decide to call the police on me because they could smell my meds, and if he was so inclined, he could easily ruin my life. He could take away my prescription, being arrested on suspicion of a drug offence could get me evicted, when you inhabit a vulnerable space like being dependant on controlled substances for basic functionality, like being poor and having little options in terms of affordable and accessible housing, having a police officer ill wish you is a terrifying prospect.
I ended up on the floor in the corner of the hallway unable to stop shaking or crying. Even now I can taste the same bitter taste in my mouth. Still, I kept an ear out for any indication of trouble. It was a relief to see them come back down the hall, leaving, and without dragging anyone away, but, there was no avoiding them though as they came back. Sure enough, they noticed my crying.
I just wanted to be left alone and to go hide in my apartment, but something about the yelling officers face stopped me. Though it was his calmer, gentler, partner talking to me, it was his face I watched. I knew that now I was playing for my own safety and some instinct told me to be honest about my fear. Not the ones about retaliation, but I did tell them that he had scared me. For a second I thought I saw something strange flash across his face. I turned to him and told him that I had never been that scared of someone before and there is was again. For the briefest second, he smiled. He was pleased. He liked the fact that I was terrified of him, he maybe even liked that I was down on the ground crying.
His attitude changed and whereas before he had been hostile and aggressive and intimidating, now he was nice. Not in a conciliatory way, not in a way that suggested he felt bad at having scared me, but rather… it felt like being rewarded. Like the pat on the head someone would give to a kicked dog once it cowered.
I didn’t know, as I attended this event, this community consultation, if this officer was going to be there. I had no way of knowing. I lucked out and he wasn’t. Moreover, I was once again coming to discuss issues with the police, issues that were very likely to put them on the defensive.
The event was held in the gym of the recreation center. There were several tables set up with a program at each one. We were going to be set up in different groups where we would discuss 3 specific areas: Neighbourhood Concerns Re Crime and Disorder, Actions and Strategic priorities for the coming years, and Ways to rebuild broken trust.
My group was interesting in that it was made up of one white male homeowner, a black Muslim community worker, a young Asian woman who worked in politics, myself, and a black man who lived in the neighbourhood and who worked in business. We were joined by the board representative and later by a uniformed office.
The first question specifically asked about the concerns of our neighbourhood.
While the white homeowner mentioned theft, specifically the bike theft and car break-ins that have been making their way around the neighbourhood, everyone else brought up concerns related to systemic racism and ableism. The man of colour next to me brought up specifically the distrust many people feel in speaking to the police or even reporting crimes.
The home owner tries to ask if it was a “cultural” problem, to which I mentioned that in a sense it was but not in the way he was thinking, it wasn’t an ethnic thing. Rather different vulnerable communities have a distrust of the police because of the way police play a role in their oppression, and because they are more likely to be victims of police violence. I brought up that as a queer disabled woman, I was scared of the police.
The women who works for the community center brought up that she specifically works with black youth and a big part of that is making sure they have a good future.
The rest of the discussion basically included each of us educating the Board Member (yes, he was white, so was the officer who joined us later.) and the white man about different ways that police raise distrust in the community. I mentioned very briefly my own experience, I brought up Abdul Abdi who lost his life here in Ottawa, I mentioned the statistics and all the different times I had seen or heard about cop misbehaviour. I included the fact that Police officers’ families experience domestic violence at levels significantly higher which is concerning if you consider that they’re the same people responsible for arresting domestic abusers.
The next discussion was about how to improve the situation. We discussed different ideas including de-escalation training which turned out to be a theme across all the tabled.
We discussed better mental health training for all Police and were told by the uniformed officer that had just joined us, that they had previously launched a program where mental health professionals would join police on calls but that they didn’t have enough volunteers. I mentioned that in many cases, they may not know it’s a mental health crisis when they’re called. Someone having a meltdown, or a psychotic break, or experiencing some other noticeable display of neurodivergence or mental illness, might have the cops on them because they’re “acting scary” or “making people uncomfortable.” Police arriving on the scene already have the frame of mind that the person is a troublemaker, a bad guy. That framing means they are more likely to perceive the person in crisis of being a threat.
Everyone brought up a focus on bias recognition, teaching sensitivity to different communities with the teachers and course developers being people belonging TO those communities. We discussed more transparency in how police were reprimanded and disciplined for excessive violence. We discussed the need for cultural sensitivity when dealing with people for whom escape from totalitarian or otherwise authoritarian regimes brought with it trauma and specific associations with police as enforcers of said regime. We discussed how in some ways everyone in marginalized communities is dealing with the imposed trauma of being marginalized.
The final question focused on rebuilding broken trust, which continued many of the same discussion, before finally all the different tables and groups reported their results. While one table that was disproportionately made up of a larger group of seemingly privileged people, every other group focused on Police misconduct. Every other group brought up a focus on teaching cops on how to deescalate situation, on reducing their own aggression, and at increasing the restraint on police violence.
The final group to go was the one with my friend, who stood up and gave an impassioned plea to please rethink the decision to arm every police force member with a taser. She went into detail describing all the ways in which it was a disproportionately high risk of mortality to disabled people, in particular for Deaf people.
After the event, I went to talk to the uniformed officer. He had been introduced as someone with a fair bit of authority. I wanted to talk to him about something he had said before which vaguely implied that officer bias was the result of their experiences rather than socialization. I spoke with him about confirmation bias and how their initial approach could create the exact situations that confirmed their existing internalized biases.
He was charming and kind, and was listening, but he kept bringing up how THESE men were members of their community, how they were college educated, that they weren’t outsiders but rather our neighbours and people who were active in their communities.
I asked him if he had ever, as a police officer responded to domestic violence situations.
“Of course, I’ve been an officer for 30 years.”
So I asked him how often the abuser, when he was outed as such to the greater community would then be described by those who weren’t victims of his abuse as “a member of the community, someone who volunteers, or owns a business, or is otherwise an active member.” Abusers often aren’t shuts ins but can force their victims to be such. Part of how they get away with their abuse for as long as they did is BECAUSE they were active members of their community.
My friend came over as well at that point, to talk to him directly about the taser issue. She had met him before at the board meeting and she called him out on the fact that even after receiving several surveys saying it was a dangerous idea, and after she had addressed the board about the fact, they had still voted unanimously in favour of the idea.
From the moment she arrived, I could tell she wasn’t going to get far with him. Everything about his body language made it clear he was humouring her by paying attention but had already dismissed whatever she was going to say.
She begged him to listen to her, at which point he interjected that he had been listening, to which she rejoined that he had still voted in favour of the initiative.
The officer responded with “police officers aren’t violent.”
I had to stop myself from laughing mirthlessly at that point, but instead proceeded to point out that most statistics showed that the rates of domestic violence among cops was higher than the average population, that he clearly hadn’t been listening to me or the others when we had described seeing police officers hitting or harassing homeless people, people of colour, or people who in some ways fell outside the protection of society, just for the fun of it.
How could he say that when statistics showed that the number of officer caused deaths and shootings had doubled in the last 20 years?
“Why does a nice lady like you worry about being tasered anyway? Why would anyone want to use a taser on you?”
The look on my friend’s face at these words was priceless as she tried to figure out how to word a proper response to his dismissive comments. She described an interaction she had with a police officer where he had stopped her for one reason or another. While she tried to explain to him that she couldn’t hear him, the officer kept yelling at her to stop yelling, completely ignoring anything she was saying. It wasn’t until she finally reached into her ear, pulled out her heading aid, put it on her palm and held it up for him to see that he finally, FINALLY, took in what she was saying. The story was meant to illustrate that in a situation where the officer doesn’t know she’s Hard of Hearing, then her regular volume could seem like aggression. In fact, the story is not altogether different from the one that lead to the death of Robert Dziekański – a Polish man who died after being tasered by police at the Vancouver Airport.
I asked if I could offer another scenario:
A frequent occurrence in Ottawa, is for a street or section of a street to be shut down in order to respond to a suspicious bag/package/briefcase. In most cases, I believe the object turns out to be harmless, possibly even just a bag someone accidentally forgot somewhere, but because we’re the capital and the fact that there are several important government buildings around, its always investigated seriously.
The scenario I outlined was such: Sparks street is shut down because of a suspicious bag. My friend is walking through downtown running errands, and possibly lost in thought and doesn’t notice the police officer redirecting traffic. She keeps walking down the street.
Meanwhile the officer sees someone walking down the street and calls after them to stop, with no response. He continues to yell, at her to stop, to turn around, but because downtown busy areas can be horrible on hearing aids, she doesn’t hear and so doesn’t respond.
To the officer, it seems like someone disregarding orders and ignoring him while walking determinedly towards the suspicious package.
In a situation like that, it’s six of one half a dozen of the other if he reaches for his taser or his gun, but in both cases the end result would be equally fatal for her.
The fact of the matter is, that with all my art and designs that are available online, the one that sells the most is a simple T-shirt that says in bold letters: I am Deaf – if I don’t respond, it’s because I can’t hear you.
Of the people I know who purchased it, most did so to have something to wear when going to legal protests with the goal of: “Avoiding being shot by police for not responding to their orders”.
In fact my friend was wearing the shirt I had made for her with the same information – purchased specifically to wear to events where there was the potential for police presence.
“I heard it, I just don’t think it’s as much of a problem as you say it is.”
And there exactly was the problem. I told him that his lack of belief in the extent of the issue was exactly why we all felt like he wasn’t listening. What even was the point of having community consultations if he wasn’t prepared to actually pay attention to and believe what the community was telling them, or worse, if he was going to insist to us that the problems we were experiencing first hand weren’t that bad or didn’t really happen.
How could he say it wasn’t as much of a problem when the numbers themselves confirm our stories? How could he say it wasn’t a problem when a room of at least 30 or more people, just in this one community meeting, were all saying it was a problem? Thirty people who weren’t all part of the same organization, many of whom didn’t know each other and had all arrived independently to point out the same issues?
The problem with community consultations, the problem with surveys, and asking for input from the general population, is that you have to be prepared to actually absorb what is being said. The cliché that the first step is admitting that there is a problem holds true. As long as the people who get to make the decisions refuse to admit that there is a deeper problem, then no proposed solution will ultimately work. As long as Police Officers themselves refuse to open their eyes and minds to the fact that something is seriously broken, there is no hope of fixing it. Instead, all that happens is that people like me, like my friend, like all the people who were there at that consultation begging to be heard, get marked as being against the police, as being hostile, or prone to exaggeration. All that happens is that once again victims get to be gaslit about their own experiences, feeling like they’re wasting their breath calling for help into an uncaring void.