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Oak Bay police review highlights difficulty in solving inequity in the workplace

The Times Colonist by Rebecca Johnson 18 February 2011

When allegations of discrimination and inequality within the Oak Bay Police Department sparked an external investigation into its human resource issues, no one would have predicted one of retired judge Alan Filmer’s conclusions: “Oak Bay cops underworked.”

Some no doubt felt a moment of relief, given the barrage of images we’re collectively carrying – of the Victoria police tethering 15-year-old Willow Kinloch in a padded cell, of Vancouver police leaving aboriginal Frank Paul to die of hypothermia on downtown streets, of RCMP officers tasering Robert Dziekanski in the Vancouver airport.

Surely it could have been worse. Better underworked police, than police working badly!

But it was sobering to read the statistics reported in the article and be reminded that the review took place against the background of a human rights complaint. The 25 police officers employed by Oak Bay are divided into two camps: the four who perceive discrimination and favouritism; and the 21 who say they work in a positive environment. Apparently of those 25 officers, only three are women, and only one is from a visible minority (the first and only in the 100year history of the department).

It isn’t surprising to read that the majority of members don’t see a problem.

That’s the difficult thing with systemic discrimination: It’s too often invisible to those who don’t experience its burden. And so, on a small police force with such limited diversity, the fact that four officers have voiced concern should make us take note.

Because here’s the kicker: Even if 100 per cent of the officers saw no discrimination or inequality within the department, the statistics are unavoidably stark. How is it that the police force has only 12 per cent women, and only four per cent visible minorities? This lack of diversity is partly inherited, reflecting long-standing hiring practices and beliefs about what police officers should look like.

But it remains a problem not only of equality, but also of justice.

Looking for “bad apples” or individual acts of malice or discrimination isn’t the answer. Our challenge is to address structures and systems. I’m confident that we have 25 exceptional Oak Bay police officers, each a person of integrity, each seeking to do his or her best.

But the lack of diversity compromises the whole. It means the officers don’t benefit from the support of a community of colleagues with a range of experiences and assets.

I’m not outraged to hear that the Oak Bay police are underworked. I see no advantage in having officers who feel overwhelmed and exhausted. When I need assistance, I hope that the police officer, firefighter, paramedic or nurse who comes to my aid is wellrested and able to help me. But I also hope that when I go to the police, or when they come to me, I will find a force that reflects my community in all its diversity.

If a police force is to reflect the face of the community in which it works, there is a need for more than individual action -more than four officers asking for change. Individual action is an important, if not essential catalyst for change. But how do we come together as a society to reform the harmful structures we have inherited and collectively rely on?

We can begin by listening to the voices of those who see discrimination -without falling into old patterns of defensiveness or attack. We can find additional ways to support our police officers in the work they are called to do. We can come together collectively to build and support a new and more inclusive structure.

I look forward to a time when we will ask not whether the majority is happy with the status quo, but whether the status quo best serves the majority. If our discussions of equality and discrimination focus our attention on individuals, we will miss the point. This is exactly the face of systemic discrimination.

Oak Bay deserves better. We all deserve better.

Rebecca Johnson is a professor of law at the University of Victoria, where she works on criminal law, organizational structures, and equality.