Complaints of contentious relations between police and queer people have been around for a long time. From bar raids to homophobic beatings, the way some police officers have been alleged to conduct themselves in queer communities leaves much to be desired. Now, the Province of Ontario is trying to curb future complaints by releasing a guide to working with the GLBTQ* community. How do other provinces measure up?
The case in Ontario
Ontario released guidelines in the fall offering ways for cops to improve relationships with the GLBTQ* community. Touted as the first of its kind in Canada, Best Practices in Policing and LGBTQ Communities in Ontario is a document designed by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police and distributed to all 53 police services in that province. The idea is to get police actively addressing issues of importance to GLBTQ* communities, including improving the workplace for GLBTQ* officers.
“Our relationship with those communities in the past has certainly been marked by discrimination, prejudice and harassment,” said Joe Couto, the association’s director of government relations and communications. “The way that things have been done in the past, we can’t continue to do that. …What we’ve asked [Ontario police services] to do is take a long, good hard look at the recommendations, see what they are doing already… and then decide what they will implement,” said Couto.
In larger communities like Ottawa and Toronto, a lot of work has already been done. But in other parts of Ontario, populations are smaller and relationships are at different stages. “It’s really about having the police services embrace the best practices in ways that are going to be effective for their communities,” Couto said. And part of the idea is that other provinces can create the own guidelines.
Winnipeg leads the way, rural Manitoba lags behind
According to Const. Tracy Patterson, Winnipeg Police Service’s (WPS) GLBTQ* liaison officer, the WPS went through the checklists in the Ontario guidelines and came out ahead. “We’ve actually had those things implemented for many years now,” she said. “Winnipeg’s been pretty good, we just don’t advertise that we do these things.”
Patterson’s job is to provide GLBTQ* sensitivity training to officers, recruits and cadets. She said she’s never experienced any discrimination on the job. She’s one of “about 10” out lesbian officers in the Winnipeg force of around 1,400. She is not aware of any out male officers.
However, she does see points for improvement. One issue she would like the Winnipeg force to work on is language. Expressions like “fag” and “that’s so gay” are used in the workplace. “Officers always say they don’t use it in a derogatory sense, they don’t mean it that way,” she said. “But me being a gay officer, I always say something. But they look at me – so I’m gay, I’m sensitive and whatever.”
The rest of Manitoba is largely policed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), where things take a different turn. The RCMP has no official guidelines for working with GLBTQ* communities, according to Sgt. Greg Cox, national RCMP spokesperson. In an email statement, Cox said the RCMP makes an online course on GLBTQ* awareness available to its employees. He added it will be reviewed in light of the Ontario document, to ensure accuracy.
Community claims guidelines too superficial, misguided
But not everybody thinks police developing guidelines helps queer people on the ground. Jaymie Robertson has been part of Winnipeg Cop Watch for the past three years. They describe the Ontario guidelines as shallow and ineffective. “The way that people tend to address the problem is, ‘How can we make police treat queer people with respect?’ I think it’s important that we be asking why police are interacting so much with queer people. What are the conditions that are putting specific queer people, especially poor trans people of colour and more marginalized people, into so much contact with the police?”
Robertson points to the criminalization of sex work and the ways poverty and homelessness are criminalized. They said this keeps some queer people in close contact with police. One specific issue that concerns Winnipeg Cop Watch is the way trans people are treated by police in prisons, often being placed in facilities of the wrong gender, or put in solitary confinement.
Shelly Smith, former executive director of the Rainbow Resource Centre, has similar concerns. “The community that I think is still grossly marginalized by the justice system as a whole, including policing, would be trans female sex work folks.” She said this segment of the population still often finds itself in dealings with the police.
Other issues have improved over time. Smith has noted increased police awareness of same-sex domestic violence, as well as gay-bashing. “I know that over the past seven or eight years, the Winnipeg Police Service has done a fair bit of work in trying to create more education and training.”
Prior to appointing specific community liaison officers, the WPS had a small team of people who would go to the Rainbow Resource Centre and various events, according to Smith. She knows a number of gay women who work in the RCMP, and said their experiences working there have been good. They’ve also been able to lend a different understanding to their colleagues. “When these women are working with gay or lesbian folks within their community or within their work, and they’re understanding people differently, I think that’s gone a long way to creating some additional awareness and sensitivity.”
Barb Burkowski is the first female and queer member of the Winnipeg Police Pipe Band. Though not an officer herself, Burkowski said all her experiences have been positive. She has acted as a bridge-builder between Winnipeg police and the queer community. As former chair of Pride Winnipeg, Burkowski got the pipe band involved in the parade.
She said she was met with openness, with officers both inside and outside the band approaching her with questions. “When they’re willing to ask me about who, what, why vocabulary, and how things work…. to open the conversation with me and ask me questions on a personal level, to me that shows a level of desire to really get this.”
The Ontario guidelines can be viewed by visiting oacp.ca and entering “LGBTQ” in the search bar.
Do you think the WPS and RCMP should come up with guideline? Do you think guidelines really change anything? Tweet @OutWords or email email@example.com with your opinion.
– Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice.