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To serve and to protect

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When two locals, Michael Dronyk and Lucas Kowalski, found themselves with RCMP officers pointing guns at their heads on Feb. 5, 2022, it was not quite the day they had imagined for themselves.

According to Dronyk, “they just started like yelling at us… it was very surreal, you know what I’m saying? Like one twitch of the finger, and our heads could be blown off.”

The day had started out quite ordinary, with both men listening to some music as they drove down some backcountry roads towards Brazeau Dam to get some firewood. Soon after they found a tree suitable for firewood, they noticed a man watching them. 

“He was parked in a way that he was watching us go back and forth. So, we got kind of sketched out and then we thought it would be a good idea to… run from him you know,” says Dronyk.

As the men tried to get away from their alleged stalker, who was now clearly following them, they pulled into a clearing to see if he would pass them. Dronyk says instead, the man blocked them and made “it clear that (they) weren’t (going to) leave.”

The two decided to ask the unidentified man why he was following them, but he fled as they approached him. 

About 15 minutes after driving off in a different direction, the men were pulled over by the police and minutes later found themselves face down in the dirt with guns pointed at their heads. The officers told them they were “under arrest for stealing some copper wire,” says Dronyk.

When Kowalski pointed out that he was driving a well-marked company vehicle, he was told he could have stolen the truck. Kowalski says his request for the officers to check the truck against his licence plate also fell on deaf ears, as were their requests to have their tight handcuffs loosened.  

Both men expressed that at that moment they felt unsafe because they were “in the middle of nowhere,” and Kowalski had his licensed firearms in his truck. 

Unfortunately, what happened to Dronyk and Kowalski is not uncommon, and police brutality and sheer police incompetence are significant issues in Canada. This is evidenced by the more than 30 police killings in 2021, including that of a one-year-old boy, according to The Canadian Press, who tracked each shooting.

In 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, another movement, “defund the police,” also emerged. 

At first, “defund the police” was a cry to take money away from the police force and reinvest it into other sectors of  society, but the movement has since evolved calls for “reform” and, more recently, “detasking.”

According to Irfan Chaudhry, Director of the Office of Human Rights, Diversity, and Equity at MacEwan University, “what (detasking the police) is trying to do is elevate the discussion … it’s not trying to be punitive and take away funding from the police, it’s trying to detask police to do things that they’re currently doing and then transfer them over to a more appropriate entity, whether it’s a city entity or a community entity.”

The Government of Canada website states that “Canada spends $15.7 billion annually on municipal, provincial, and federal police services. However, according to the Government of Alberta crime statistics, the number of violent crimes reported in Edmonton increased by 8.79 per cent yearly and 19.8 per cent in the last five years.  

Although in 2021 the Edmonton city council voted to lower the annual police budget, CBC states that  “Edmonton police will (still) receive about $384.8 million” for 2022.”  As renowned American educator, Stephen Covey, states in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “one thing’s for sure. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’re getting.”

Dr. Kwame Boadu, a professor of sociology at both MacEwan and the University of Alberta, believes we should “…spread the money across different social programs so that issues may be tackled by experts, in expert areas, such as mental health and in other areas rather than the police who may not be well equipped and well qualified to handle some of these issues.”

Boadu touches on a good point, as according to Edmonton Police Service on their website, the training process for the police in Canada is short (less than a year) and it doesn’t appear to train recruits on how to expertly handle things like mental health or addiction crises. Many people share the sentiment that the police should not be the ones to respond to these crises.

According to an official House of Commons report on systemic racism in policing in Canada published in June 2021, “racial profiling is one issue that is prevalent with police in Canada, especially when it comes to Black and Indigenous people.

“Why is it that violence seems to be used very quickly when the suspect or subject is a Black person, Indigenous person, or a person of color? (But Canada) does not have those same quick-to-jump use of force when it’s a white subject,” Chaudhry says. He adds that Canada needs to start collecting more data “to highlight what those discrepancies are because we don’t even have the data to help us understand and examine the situation from a Canadian context.” 

Chaudhry also states that “unconscious biases fuel the perception of safety or lack of safety from a police perspective.” Citing a commissioner from the Calgary Police Commission, he adds that they “raised an interesting point where, you know, we’ve had convoy protests that have really intimidated police officers to the point where people in convoy protests are hitting and slapping police officers and no use of force was used there at all, but the second we have a Black body who is, you know, acting in an erratic way, it escalated quite quickly.”

As well-intentioned as these “defund,” “reform,” and “detask”  movements may seem, they have not been without pushback.

Chaudhry “think(s) one pushback is framing. So when we talk about ‘defunding,’ it really does strike people in a very emotional way, so (we) think that when people hear ‘defunding’ or ‘reforming,’ they automatically assume it’s police abolition. Some do have that perspective; some do not want police at all.”

He also expresses that if detasking does happen “then the challenge is where do they (the areas detasked from the police) get shifted off to, and that’s the current challenge. Most municipalities likely don’t have appropriate areas they can … pass some situations or pass some scenarios off to, then it stays with police. And that’s a fair question right, because we don’t want to kind of detask police and not have appropriate areas that take over from that.”

There are many other questions that remain unanswered, coupled with a lack of support from political leaders at all levels of government that makes creating change frustrating. 

In 2020, the City of Edmonton created a community safety and well-being task force to provide recommendations aimed at providing a community that is, as the City of Edmonton’s official webpage for the task forces puts it, “safe for all.” According to Dr. Chaudhry, who was on this task force, out of the 14 recommendations brought forth by the task force, City Council approved 13, yet “tangibly, there’s been nothing” done to implement these recommendations. 

Whether it is defunding the police or police reform, this much is clear, something must be done to prevent residents from having the police pull out guns on them without just cause, especially in cases of non-violent crimes. For instance, when the police approached Dronyk and Kowalski for allegedly stealing copper wire, the cops, as Kowalski says, “were so jumpy right off the bat.” 

As Dronyk states, “…even if we were guilty, which we weren’t obviously, but even if we were, it was over like a foot of wire or something like that. Like that much copper wire… and they’re (going to) like pull out all the stops on us? That feels like an overkill, even if we were guilty.”

It’s hard to understand why government administrations do not take such a blatantly obvious issue more seriously. Although, many people feel that without police our society would be in chaos, and even though it is an imperfect system, it is better than the alternative of having no system.

However, that does not mean that people should surrender their voices. The reason this movement gained momentum is because of citizens, and truly nothing will ever change if we do not speak up too.

As a final note, it’s important to remember that not all individual police officers are bad, but good intentions do not equal adequate policing. And just too often, an officer abuses their power, and things go too far.

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