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Policing programs reinforce existing system: critics

When Alain Babineau was a police academy cadet nearly 30 years ago, the education his cohort received on diversity and racism amounted to a few basic lectures with little in terms of practical application, the former RCMP and Ontario Provincial Polic

When Alain Babineau was a police academy cadet nearly 30 years ago, the education his cohort received on diversity and racism amounted to a few basic lectures with little in terms of practical application, the former RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police officer said.

Babineau, who now works as an adviser for the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, said while diversity is typically part of the curriculum for professional and academic policing programs, it's hard to know whether what's taught now is more robust or still just "lectures here and there delivered by white people."

"If racial profiling, for instance, is part of something that you want your cadets to be aware of and sensitized to, then ... you would need to have Black actors, you would need to develop your scenarios based on realities, based on real events, and to see how your cadets react, and so that requires quite a bit of work," he said.

As calls to reform or defund police services grow across Canada, some post-secondary institutions with law enforcement programs say they are re-examining their curricula to reflect those concerns.

But some critics say the nature of those programs — and their ties with police forces and current or former officers — mean they essentially reinforce the existing system.  

The same can be said about police academies, the institutions where prospective officers receive their official training, critics say.

"The academy knows, sees what the police are looking for and make sure that they feed them candidates that fit that mould," Babineau said.

That, in turn, makes it hard to affect any meaningful change regarding police education despite decades of calls for action on systemic racism and other forms of discrimination, he said.

There are several educational paths available to aspiring police officers in Canada, depending on the jurisdiction and force.

Recruits must enrol in a police academy, typically run by the province or a local police service —  programs that generally span several months.

But they may also choose to pursue a college or university degree related to policing, particularly as research shows higher education is increasingly valued by police forces.

In Ontario, legislation states that a police officer must have a certificate or other document from a post-secondary institution, unless the police service has "additional criteria prescribed."

The Toronto Police Service, for example, does not require a post-secondary degree, but a spokeswoman said 92 per cent of its most recent class of officers had post-secondary education.

Most college programs, which generally last one to four years, put an emphasis on the practical skills required to be an officer.

Several universities across Canada have also launched degrees in policing in an effort to provide what they frame as a broader, humanities-based education.

Both types of programs often hire retired or former police officers to teach some courses.

The Canadian Press reached out to a variety of policing programs at both universities and colleges across the country. Eight bachelor or college programs in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia declined comment or did not reply.

Assiniboine Community College in Brandon, Man., said it anticipated the changing role of police and has emphasized being proactive within the community by encouraging students to work with social service workers and counsellors when they join police forces.

"We've been evolving ourselves," said Ian Grant, a former Brandon officer who now acts as an adviser for the program.

"We engage people from different disciplines within the college to present to our students so people aren't getting just a policing perspective, they're getting a more multi-human services perspective."

He noted the program does not offer training in use of force, firearms, or driving.

In Ontario, Durham College said it's proud of its curriculum, which is centred around "development of comprehensive social and communication skills, in addition to technical knowledge."

Another school, Fleming College in Peterborough, Ont., said it's committed to "integrating knowledge and experience" into its curriculum. It received a federal grant in March for a project titled "Diversity, Policing and Learning: Meeting Community Needs for Inclusive Practices."

Meanwhile, Brock University, in St. Catharines, Ont., said it is phasing out its four-year program jointly run with nearby Niagara College. Instead, it's launching a critical criminology degree this fall with an academically focused curriculum.

Stacey Hannem, a professor of criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University, said police forces have increasingly found college programs aren't providing the education they want to see in recruits, prompting universities to launch their own programs.

In building their programs, universities typically consult police forces on what skills they would like officers to develop, Hannem said.

"And so, the interest is in creating a program that's going to be attractive to officers, not necessarily creating a program that's going to create better citizens, who then become better officers," she said.

Hannem and Christopher Schneider, a sociology professor at Brandon University in Manitoba, penned an op-ed earlier this year calling for universities to be more transparent about their relationships with police forces.

They argued universities are allowing police to reproduce the existing system of law enforcement under the guise of higher education, noting many hire law enforcement officers to teach.

A former London, Ont., police officer and instructor, Scott Blandford helped develop Ontario's Police Foundations college program and taught it in several colleges before taking the reins of Laurier University's public safety program, which includes a Bachelor's degree in policing.

Laurier launched the first online-only policing program in Canada, Blandford said. The multidisciplinary degree is aimed at currently serving officers who came in without post-secondary education and are finding themselves competing for promotions with a younger, more credentialled generation, he said.

He defended the hiring of former officers, saying only those with the necessary academic credentials are selected.

"You want someone who has experience in the field," he said. "If I was going to medical school, I don't want to be trained by a veterinarian.

"But you want to make sure that you're also bringing in someone who has the academic credentials, so you're not creating sort of clones of the previous generation's problems."

Babineau, the former officer turned advocate, said there needs to be national standards for police officers and their education, and a regular recertification process.

"That's the toughest piece, but government has the power to change that, because policing is nothing but an institution. And people will follow suit," he said.

Others say the role of policing must be reassessed before any meaningful change can be made to policing education.

"Once we've determined the role and function we want the police to play in our society we'll then... better determine how we select, educate and train police officers," said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a sociology professor at the University in Toronto who specializes in issues related to race and policing.

"But until then, we're tweaking with what we know is a broken system."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 10, 2020.

John Chidley-Hill and Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press