Police Officer / Social Worker views on the future of police. Reflections from the pandemic social work class presentation.
Oleksandr (Sasha) Kondrashov, PhD.
I grew up in Ukraine, where my family distrust the police system. Growing up in USSR, the country that used police force to silence everyone who disagrees with government policy, my family taught me to avoid any contact with the police officer. I have read many stories of police brutality in Ukraine, corruption and heard stories from my friends about police bribery and police dishonesty. Whenever I saw a police officer in Ukraine, I usually cross to the opposite side of the street to not become the next target of the corrupted system. It is a survival skill. In Ukraine, if police stopped you for any check, expect to pay a fine directly to the police officer to continue your walk. If you don’t, and you decide to challenge the police officer’s rationale for interrupting your walk, you can experience police brutality, including jail time. The change of the governance system from the USSR to independent Ukraine, unfortunately, hasn’t brought changes in the police services. The recent massive police reform in Ukraine received mixed reviews from my friends as I no longer live in my birthplace. Current events in Ukraine demonstrate that police brutality is still the norm, and if someone disagrees with government action, police will use force against you.
Coming to Canada, I was cautious of the police. However, my Mama, when she arrived in Winnipeg, shares the story that when I went to pick up luggage, and she was sitting at midnight at the airport patiently waiting when I retrieved our lost suitcase, the police officer came near her. She was worried as in Ukraine, seeing a police officer in the midnight in the airport mean troubles are coming. In Canada police officer smiled at her and continued walking. When I came back, Mama said that this is the first time she saw a police officer smiling, and she now tells a story to all her friends about the Winnipeg Police Officer who did not check her documents, ask for money and just smiled welcoming her to Winnipeg. Based on that encounter and the fact that she was never being asked to show her registration papers in the last eight years, Mama thinks that all police officers in Canada are great. I also heard from social workers who collaborated with police that many police officers are responsive to social workers calls for support and go above and beyond to respond to child welfare investigations, respect community members and connect people with needed resources.
At the same time, my students shared with me stories about police officers that are not that supportive. Indigenous and racialized students shared with me stories that were the same to my friends’ stories from Ukraine about police brutality and injustices they experienced while connecting with police officers. People who are part of Black Lives Matter and Idle No More movements and many others will share many stories of violence and abuse from police officers. In Ukraine, the Heavenly Hundred protesters who died in 2014 from police brutality initiated government action to review police funding and initiated major police system reforms that did not bring the needed change as evidence with the rise of police brutality in Ukraine and around the world.
What I realized from listening to the multiplicity of voices that there are two types of police officers in Canada, those who go above and beyond to support communities where they serve and those who abuse their power and practice police brutality with members of vulnerable groups.
As part of a pandemic social work course, I reached out to my former student, who joined the Brandon police force five years ago to share perspective on police while working inside the system during a pandemic. We also discussed the future of social worker – police officer relationship in pandemic and beyond.
The discussion was very rich, and I am thankful for Amanda’s time. We had a critical dialogue, and everyone who was on Zoom was able to ask any questions they wanted to know about police, and Amanda answered all the challenging questions. I learn a lot about the Brandon Police Force. I am proud of Amanda joining the police in Brandon and for sharing social work knowledge with police officers.
What was very surprising for me to know that to become a police officer in Brandon, you need to have a grade 12 education. I felt a little bit terrified as it can mean that anyone who completes grade 12 schooling qualifies to be a police officer. How police officers are getting an education about the history of policing, the use of force, the relationship between Indigenous People and police and police work with vulnerable populations. Amanda also shared the responsibilities of police officers. They require skills that will need to have a high level of critical thinking and specialized knowledge. I thought about my students, many of whom do not have most of those skills, and they are already taken at least two years of post-secondary education to be able to start their BSW journey. How can someone without adequate knowledge and training even be considered for the position of trust and highly skilled labour that is required of a professional police officer? Having such low education entry requirements does not help provide an adequate response to societal concerns.
I am glad to hear that the City of Brandon hired a female-identified social worker to join the police team. There is hope when diversifying the police force and attracting people with social work professional values, the change might be possible. But the current police system needs a lot of support to provide those who do not have specialized training and education to serve their communities better. My biggest concern is related to the values that people bring to the police force. Are police officers becoming agents of social control and enforce the military type of culture in the communities they serve? Are they motivated by access to power and control? Or police officers are driven by the desire to share their skills and support their communities with values similar to social work professionals, such as protecting the dignity and worth of every person, providing service to humanity etc?
We discussed how it is critical to have diversity within the police force. Amanda shared how passionate she is helping children. As a parent, she can better relate to kids and support them in her role as a police officer. Her social work interpersonal communication skills help build trust and maintain a positive relationship within the community. Her knowledge about community development helps to make an interprofessional team that can help to understand the community situation better and provide individuals and families with the best supportive responses. It was reassuring to know that most police officers in Brandon want to see their community thriving and choose to become police officers to support people living in Brandon.
Amanda reminded my class that police are tasked to respond to every concern in the city of Brandon. It is community members who choose to call the police when there is a concern that they cannot resolve themselves. Police officers are first responders. When there is a fentanyl overdose, the police will be there. Someone uses guns; the police are coming. There are mental health crises in the families, and weapons are involved police is called. Now, police are required to do wellness checks, investigate crime, stop drug and human trafficking, respond to suicide, child abuse, deaths, family violence, and this list is long. When the time permits, the police are also doing traffic enforcement. Anything that members of the community cannot resolve themselves, police will be there.
Most of Amanda’s day is to respond to phone calls from community members. As members of the community are not trained to assess risk, the police are often provided with limited information, and they need to make a decision on short notice. Amanda shared that the police officer does not know what will await them after each call. Police officers are aware that even showing up in the uniform is classified as a use of force—many members of the community and afraid of seeing a police officer on their doorsteps. The work is stressful and challenging, but many officers choose to do it to serve their communities. Yes, the majority of the officers that come to work in police in Brandon based on Amanda’s observations want to serve. However, few experience burnout, some use force inappropriately, most still want to see their communities as a safe place to live for everyone. The military culture in the police is changing in Brandon, and Amanda is hopeful that the younger generation of police officers are diverse and do not want to be connected to those police officers that abuse power, practice police brutality towards vulnerable populations. It is still happening, but the number of incidents is much lower than the shows in Canada, US and around the world.
We had a very detailed discussion on the role of media in police work. We discussed the challenges police could experience when media is misrepresenting the police side of the stories. As police officers are bound by confidentiality and privacy laws, the only story public might hear a non-police story. Public might not always hear a story from a person who called the police and the police’s perspective on what has happened. The media will choose what side of the story needs to be shared and how it will be shared. Amanda reminded students that there are multiple perspectives and what is the truth, it is not easy to find out the truth, and police officers often have limited time to make decisions. Every day, Amanda is making decisions that are life/death decisions. The number of suicides, deaths from accidents, from drug use are all required police intervention. Every police officer needs to make many decisions every day that other members of the community call them to make. Police officers are the first respondents. To have the first respondents who are adequately equipped to address community concerns require more systemic changes.
Police officers need specialized skills to build trust in the communities they serve. When people do not trust their police officers, it is hard to respond to concerns that require a high level of trust from both parties. Brandon police are doing a lot of outreach, connecting with the community, raising awareness of police work, challenges and successes. The media needs to share different aspects of police work. The only stories that are currently shared involve police brutality. They still need to be shared as police officers need to be accountable for their actions, and those who cannot control their use of power and systematically oppress members of vulnerable groups need to be disciplined appropriately. Each community needs to have proper oversight over police where examples of police brutality are addressed and not silenced.
Expecting the police to do all the work with no resources is also unrealistic. When someone asks for defunding the police, what is an alternative? Who needs to respond to community concerns. Some say, social workers. Many of my students are trained in suicide risk assessment, have strong interpersonal communication skills, and can support people who experienced trauma. The most important aspect of why social workers might be helpful in the police force is that most social workers come from the value-based that challenge oppression and recognize privilege and power embedded in their role. However, I am not too sure that social workers join the profession to become police officers and use weapons as part of their job responsibilities. Also, for social workers, it is very challenging to work within oppressive institutions to promote change. If there is no public support for the required changes, social workers can become the agents of social control instead of agents of social change. Change in the system involves partnership, collaboration, awareness of injustices and desire to change by majority members of society. Social workers work in partnership with police, and those collaborations can be further explored to change the military culture of some police departments and diversify the police force to strengthen the trust between police and community members.
Amanda shared that when looking for changes, it is essential to recognize the people in the police force going above and beyond job requirements to support people in their communities. Police officers spend time with homeless youth in hospitals after suicide attempts. Police officers protect victims of violence by connecting them with proper supports. Police officers sacrifice their lives, so others feel safe when police stop those who use alcohol and drive carelessly on the road. Police are fighting every day with those who sell drugs, weapons and otherwise harm others and themselves. Many deaths have been prevented because police work 24/7 to protect public safety. Those stories are not on the media. However, they are also part of everyday police work.
What we can do to recognize those stories, to build trust between police officers and members of the public while acknowledging that police brutality is a concern for vulnerable groups and respond to calls of Black Lives Matter and similar movements around the world. It is a task for our generation. What type of policing do you want to see in your community? Know your police officers, support their work when it is focused on safety for all members of the community, demand the change if your local police officer or police department abuse power and community trust. Be an active citizen.
I appreciate the work my students do in communities. I am very grateful when they come and share with the class what it means to be a first responder. They carry social work values in their lives, and in everything that they do. Social workers promote the dignity and worth of every person as best as they can within and outside the systems they work. I am very grateful that Amanda found time in the busy schedule to share the police side of the story that is often unvoiced and invisible. I will keep reflecting on what needs to be done to build trust as I know it is not easy to work with the system when you are a member of a vulnerable group. I remember stories from Ukraine and my racialized and Indigenous students. I hope in Canada one day, the police officers will develop the level of trust among all members of the community, and police values will be more aligned with social work value and shared by all community members. I am hopeful and thankful for police officers like Amanda and those who smile at my Mama and who are working to bring the needed change to police within the system, build trust and serve their home communities. Thank you, Amanda and all first responders who challenge oppression, recognize privilege, practice reflectively using the social work value base in all human service professions.