Closing rifts and opening minds

by February 3, 2015
Photo by Tom Kubik (2014), from "Hands Up, Don't Shoot"

Photo by Tom Kubik (2014), from “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”

Jamil Jivani grew up in Toronto, and as a young Black man, he felt a deep fear and mistrust of police. He was stopped by police routinely, and assumptions were made about him that were entirely untrue. As a young boy, he saw his father face the same stereotyping. So, in 2013, the recent Yale law grad founded the Policing Literacy Initiative, which focuses on helping people to better understand the way police services work, and to influence policy.

Just two months after creating the organization, two white officers stopped him on his own front stoop in his Little Jamaica neighbourhood, and treated him, in his words, as “guilty until proven innocent.” This time, Jivani decided to address his problems with police directly. He requested a discussion with the two officers who stopped him to let them know what they could do better—and to learn where they were coming from. In order to prevent massive injustices like the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Jivani says we need to work toward fixing the smaller, everyday injustices. Here’s what he has to say, in conversation with SCOPE:

SCOPE: Can you take me back to what it was like speaking with the police after being racially profiled that day in front of your house?

JAMIL JIVANI: It was one of those moments where life calls your bluff. Up until that point, I’d been doing a lot of work trying to facilitate dialogue between police officers and youth in low income neighbourhoods. [I realized], ‘Okay, so now I’m in a situation where I will see the benefits of dialogue.’ You hope trying to have constructive conversations might actually work, right? But it was uncomfortable too, because I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea how open-minded the officers were going to be. I wondered ‘Is this going to be one of those things where they feel on the defensive, and they’re arguing with me, and it’s just a continuation of the animosity and hostility that I felt when we first met on the street? Or is it going to be a different kind of conversation?’ I wanted to go in being respectful, and with a genuine interest of wanting to hear their point of view. Thankfully, they did their part in terms of wanting to understand how I felt, and also wanting to provide an explanation so I could better understand the policies and practices that they were using. My hope is that this will happen more often, and that more officers will make that effort to engage people—if for no other reason than helping officers learn how they might do things differently the next time.

Tell me a little bit about the process that you had to follow to file this complaint, and what it took to get the officers to sit down in a room with you.

I’ve actually had the privilege of going to the U.S. to speak to people about how the process here works, because I think ours is actually one of the more sophisticated complaint systems. Basically, there’s two ways you can go about it: you can file a complaint on the website of the Ontario independent police review director (OIPRD), or you can go in to the police division station. You provide a description of what happened, the officer’s name and badge number, and the timing and the location of where things occurred. Then it’s a pretty fast [response to the claim].

There are two kinds of complaints: One would be a legal issue, where there was a use of force, or some incident has occurred that involves legal charges. And then you have the other type of complaint, which is what I experienced. It’s more of a complaint about the services that we’re paying for as taxpayers, and wanting to make sure people are being treated fairly and respectfully. Those types of complaints traditionally just kind of get pushed to the side. They’re seen as less serious. Thankfully, with the [second] kind of complaint, the OIPRD tries to provide a mediation, like what I experienced, to encourage police to not just brush those complaints to the side, but to do something about them. That’s actually pretty unique. From my perspective, it was the only thing that was going to make me happy as far as something positive that was going to come out of it. It was also the only thing that I thought might result in some lessons to learn for both myself, and the officers as well. I met a complaints co-ordinator at the station. He listened to me, and he agreed to arrange the meeting for me. It took about a month for it to happen, but he put the effort in.

Are there any issues you noticed with the complaints process?

There’s a quota for complaints per year [for which] they try to encourage mediation. At that point, if it’s not going to involve a legal issue, they will forward the complaint back to the Toronto Police. And that’s where the complaints process gets a little weird. The OIPRD isn’t big enough to handle all the complaints in terms of the administrative side of mediations or contacting every complainant, and so the police do it. Which is tricky, because you have the police essentially handling complaints about themselves. That’s where a lot of people start to get cynical about whether the complaint’s going to get taken seriously or not.

Right. So I know you mentioned people being cynical—but when you say the complaints co-ordinator was willing to listen to you, do you feel like that may have had something to do with the fact that you’re well-versed in the law? Would someone younger or less well-spoken be treated the same way?

I don’t know. What I do know is eight years ago, before I started post-secondary education, I’m not sure I would have behaved in a way that would have resulted in this conversation. I would have been very confrontational. I wouldn’t have been interested at all in hearing what anyone else had to say. I would have been very angry and emotional. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t have shown any understanding for their side, and I would have been hostile—as hostile as they were to me, or more. I would say that, for certain, that is probably true for a lot of people. And this is true for people from all neighbourhoods, and all racial backgrounds, and all ethnic communities. People could have those experiences and not have [the outcome that I had] because they might not have the education that I have, or they might not know how the procedures work.  So part of what I see as my responsibility is to try and make our public institutions, like the police services, as flexible, as amenable, as understanding of people so that they can be open in terms of being able to offer that type of dialogue to as broad a group of people as possible. It’s their responsibility to be able to communicate better with the public, so it wouldn’t be my responsibility to make sure the dialogue was in place; it wouldn’t be my responsibility to make sure that something productive happened. It would be the institution’s responsibility.

Many Black activists say it’s not up to people of colour to educate others on how not to be racist—they can do that work on their own. What would you say to that argument?

So I think there’s different ways of defining the problem. I wouldn’t use the word racist to describe a lot of what happens. A lot of it, I think, is a matter of competency and understanding of the area that you’re in. I think a big part of the problem is that you have police officers going into neighbourhoods that they’re not familiar with. They don’t have a lot of local relationships, and that’s why they might treat people in a way that might be more aggressive, or they might be stopping people more than they should. I don’t know how much of it is racial profiling. We call it racial profiling. It can be racial profiling. But I’m very hesitant to say that means an officer is racist, versus they might not have the local knowledge and experience that they need to do that job properly. I thought they really had no reason to stop me, except that I match the very broad description of being a Black male of a certain height. From their point of view, there was a lot more going on in terms of why they approached me the way they did. I don’t agree with the reasons why they spoke to me that way, but I also think they were unprepared to talk to someone who comes from a community that has been stereotyped.

Even if you have a good reason to stop me in the first place, you need to learn to speak to me in a respectful way, so that rather than coming into this neighbourhood doing damage by talking to people, you might be able to talk to them in a way where you’re actually learning something, and they can feel safe because you’re there. I look at it as, ‘Are we ensuring people who are public servants are prepared to serve the public that they’re employed by?’ We need to make sure that we have police officers who are Black and can go into a Vietnamese neighbourhood. We need to have Filipino officers going into an Afghan neighbourhood, and policing those communities properly. It can’t just be about Black and white. It’s got to be about something bigger, because I think that’s how we prepare for our future 20 years from now. Policing is one of the most visible examples of [this], but you can see it playing out in our schools, in Parliament, at City Hall. Policing is the most visible to people because it’s the most visceral. It’s the one where your safety is on the line, right? People can take your freedom away from you. It becomes a lot more…scary, in a lot of ways, if you look at Ferguson and New York. We’re seeing some horrific things happening in the past few months.

To what degree do you think this approach could work in Ferguson, and elsewhere?

When I went down to the U.S. to talk about policing in Canada, I did a presentation at Yale, where I went to law school. I got that question a lot. My experience can’t resolve someone being shot. It can’t resolve someone who’s being choked. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to think that if Michael Brown survived the shooting, that the response should be him sitting down with the officer. Those types of incidents are extreme, and those are the types that involve legal issues that I think need a different response than what I went through.

But just as an example, if you look at the testimony that Darren Wilson gave to the grand jury about how he felt that day when he shot Michael Brown, and the way that he describes that neighbourhood, he talks about it being hostile. He describes Michael Brown as being a “demon” and a “hulk.” That’s where this kind of response can change culture. What I mean by that is, based on the way he talked, [Darren Wilson’s] had other uncomfortable interactions with people in that neighbourhood. And if he was forced to sit down with people in that neighbourhood and learn how they think, and explain to them how he thinks, then I don’t think he would have seen Michael Brown as a demon and a hulk, and I don’t think he would have thought that it was a hostile neighbourhood. I think he would have understood the human aspects of who these people are. I think he might have been less likely to shoot somebody, because he would have understood the neighbourhood he was dealing with. By building up that type of dialogue, I think you can maybe prevent those types of things from happening in years to come, if people break down some of those barriers that allow some people to see others as subhuman.

Is there any other lesson you came away with, or that police came away with, following your discussion?

I think one of the main things is to make an effort to understand and recognize the good things that police officers do, because that helps you build a relationship. It’s really critical to having a conversation about changing things. The other thing is making sure you understand who the police officers are who have the progressive voices. There will come times when those officers need public support for leadership opportunities, and to change policies. If we let those people fly under the radar, then it’s going to be people who might not share our values that get those opportunities.

What are you working on now in terms of bridging gaps between police and community?

We have a team of community-based researchers [the Policing Literacy Initiative] who are taking time to help us out with this research project. We want to get something ready for mid-February, and what we want to do is study [the chain of events if something like Ferguson] happens here. So we’re looking at the Special Investigations Unit, the OIPRD, the Toronto Police Board, the Toronto Police Service. We want to do a review of how public institutions in Ontario work, and then present it to people in Ferguson, New York, and Washington D.C.

Can you give us an advance view of the findings?

Well, the research isn’t done yet, so I can’t speak in any concrete terms. But I can say that one of the things I think we’re learning is, compared to the U.S. cities, we are way ahead in terms of accountability, in terms of having purpose and leadership within the police and criminal justice systems. There’s a lot of good stuff that we could export to the U.S., but there’s a lot of stuff that we would want to be done better, too.