“Disappointed,” “discouraged,” and insulted. Those are the feelings of the Thunder Bay Police Service after three First Nations communities filed a human rights complaint against the police following a chain of events that marks the continuing gap between our police services, the people they serve, and the common desire for general respect, co-operation and sensitivity.
Here’s the recap: One member of the police force accidentally disseminated a mock news release that he authored to the media. He meant it as a “joke,” to be sent internally to other Thunder Bay police officers. He didn’t mean it for the public eye. He headlined his news release, “Fresh Breath Killer Captured.” The reference, of course, is to the fact that the suspected killer of a Native man, who was found in an area allegedly frequented by people who drink mouth-wash to get drunk, had been arrested by the police. Or perhaps the officer was referring to the suspect, who is also a Native man (can’t rely on the grammar for an accurate understanding of the headline.)
Maybe it’s needless to emphasize that the headline was offensive, prejudicial, and racist.
Or maybe that’s precisely what needs emphasis.
Apparently, the Thunder Bay Deputy Police Chief, Andy Hay, and Thunder Bay’s Mayor, Keith Hobbs, who necessarily sits on the Police Services Board, don’t think that the comment was offensive, racist, prejudicial, or a problem at all. Hay claimed that he didn’t think the e-mail reflected a “racial issue.” And Hobbs told the media that the media is making something out of nothing, and that the e-mail news-release “has nothing to do with race.”
Neither the Deputy Police Chief nor the Mayor seemed to believe that the comments were worth getting upset about.
To make things worse, the police declared their view that race was not an issue before any internal investigation was completed. This conclusion was not only premature, but it minimized the offensiveness of the e-mail. Effectively, they dismissed the issue, further offended, closed the doors on, and alienated the families and people involved.
Seeing that the police force had already made up its mind about the nature of the email, three First Nations communities decided to file a human rights complaint.
That’s when the police got upset.
Chris Adams, the Thunder Bay Police’s Executive Officer, claimed that the police are “disappointed” by the decision of the deceased’s family and the three communities to file a complaint against the police. Police Chief J.P. Levesque said that he was “discouraged” by the decision to file a complaint.
Not to be outdone, Police Association President Greg Stephenson said that his members are “outraged” by the complaint, and that the claim is “counterproductive to the meaningful partnerships that we have built between police and the citizens.”
The police have called the filing of the complaint a “step backward.”
It appears that the police have got it backward.
It was the officer’s e-mail that set back previous efforts to build bridges.
Perhaps such set-backs are occasionally to be expected. In such cases, it is the response that matters. Unfortunately, the police response hurdled back the efforts at cooperation.
And since there was an unwillingness to view these slurs as racial, as both reinforcing stereotypes and mocking a tragic and complex social problem, the human rights complaint may give everyone precisely what is needed: a chance at meaningful mediation, systemic education, and further police training.
(post-script: Thunder Bay’s Mayor, while maintaining that the media is insensitive and that the email simply displayed, “dark humour,” has apologized for the hurt caused by the e-mail, in his position as Mayor, and not as a member of the Police Services Board of Thunder Bay. The PSB is expected to issue an apology later today: http://www.tbnewswatch.com/news/236937/Hobbs-apologizes )
“Thunder Bay Police ‘Insulted’ by Human Rights Complaint,” CBC news, Sept. 19, 2012 http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/story/2012/09/19/tby-human-rights-complaint.html
Labine, Jeff. “Controversial email,” tbnewswatch.com, Sept. 5, 2012
Smith, Jamie. “Sad State of Affairs,” tbnewswatch.com, Sept 18, 2012