In Ferguson, Mo., a fatal confrontation between a young black man and a white police officer led to several days of street protests and many arrests.
As we have seen in the news, 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed on Aug. 9 by Darren Wilson. Putting aside a judgmental analysis of the shooting itself — a grand jury began hearing evidence in the case on Wednesday and will determine whether to charge Wilson in the teen’s death — there are several other things to take into consideration.
The first issue is that the shooting and the resulting demonstrations have brought to public discussion and debate the racial tension and discrimination inherent in American society
It also points to the lack of diverse representation in bodies of authority in the U.S., especially in communities with large black populations such as Ferguson.
In that force, only three of 53 commissioned officers are black — even though the population of the city is two-thirds black. The sad fact is, black populations in the U.S. have always been historically underrepresented.
Learning from the grim situation in Ferguson, one question comes to mind: How are we doing in that regard here in Canada? With an ever-changing multicultural landscape and high rates of immigration, plus our growing aboriginal population, are our local bodies of authority representative of the diversity of our communities?
The other interesting phenomenon is the lack of trust in the community of Ferguson for its police force.
People have been demonstrating in the streets for more than a week now and several people have been arrested, mainly for failing to disperse when police asked them to do so.
Anyone could argue that it is normal for a given community to distrust authorities who feel foreign and are also not representative of their community. But the truth is that Ferguson residents are on the streets also because they do not believe in the explanation of the police about the unfolding of events during the shooting. The demonstrations happen because the community rejected the department’s explanation.
In that department, Canada has done very well in creating the trust that is needed in policing. Across the country, two important mechanisms are aimed at accomplishing this: governing police boards or associations and public complaint bodies.
The participation of civilians in both of these bodies is what has come to be known as civilian oversight of police. It facilitates transparency and accountability and therefore the trust that is so necessary — and is so lacking in Ferguson.
In Canada, specific details in the structure and operation of boards vary from province to province, but governing police boards are usually responsible for setting priorities and policies, hiring the chief of police and setting an annual budget subject to municipal council approval.
The chief is then responsible to implement the policies and meet established priorities through the day-to-day operations of the police service and is accountable to the board.
In the case of Manitoba, every municipality that operates a police service must establish and maintain a police board.
The purpose of the board is to provide civilian control over law enforcement, the maintenance of public peace and crime prevention in a municipality, acting also as a liaison between the community and the police service itself. The boards also have a duty to ensure that police services are delivered in a manner consistent with community needs, values and expectations.
Fatal encounters and violent confrontations are not foreign to the work of the police, although in a healthy community, they are rare or non-existent.
Through the work of governing boards and police services themselves, the levels of accountability, transparency and the subsequent community trust in its police force should be enough to make demonstrations and events such as the ones in Ferguson unnecessary.
Aiming at high rates of diverse representation in bodies of authority should also help to make situations such as the one in Ferguson unlikely in Canadian communities.