Some thoughts on the violent treatment of Mr. Omer

The systemic racism in policing, and the absence of accountability of the Waterloo Regional Police Service.

I want white folks, like me, in Waterloo Region to do better. 

I want to live in a community that values Black, Indigenous, and racialized lives. 

I want to live in a community that holds people and institutions meaningfully accountable when they cause harm. 

I want to live where the foundations of community are love and care for all — where all can live safely, free from psychological and physical fear of violence. 

Policing is a significant barrier to achieving these wants. Until we properly reckon with the violence of policing, we cannot be a community of love and care; a community of accountability; or a community where all people are valued. Our silence about the treatment of Mr. Omer has been deafening. We need to speak up about these things to enact change.

The whole set of circumstances — from police officers with the Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS) beating up Mr. Omer (a Black person with mental health challenges); to the “external” reviews; to the WRPS “commitments and lessons learned;” to the Police Services Board’s unwillingness to hold the police accountable — is outrageous, infuriating, and unacceptable.

WRPS want us to believe they have gone above-and-beyond to review what happened. However, the “external” reports examining the circumstances related to Mr. Omer’s victimization by police is the very definition of biased. This is just the police policing police. The reviewers didn’t even attempt to minimize bias as they only reviewed and shared the perspectives of the police officers involved. This does not meet the threshold for a trustworthy and rigorously ethical process. 

By claiming to be external while not actually being external, they further undermine the credibility of the police service. Is it normal for police to investigate circumstances without interviewing all witnesses or reviewing all available evidence? A partial investigation disguises the full story.

In spite of supposedly doing nothing wrong, WRPS still wants to implement change as a result of their actions towards Mr. Omer.

I wish someone on the Police Services Board had asked at the recent board meeting if the police did everything “reasonable, appropriate, and lawful,” as the reviewers claimed, then why are the WRPS seeking to implement “lessons learned,” such as implicit bias training and diversity-competent policing? Or another way of asking the same question: why do police need to be less racist if the officers’ actions were reasonable? Why change if you’ve done nothing wrong? 

The answer is obvious: the police brutalizing Mr. Omer is a clear example of the systemic racism (white supremacy) embedded in policing. The fiction that Blackness equals dangerousness is the very foundation of policing. How do we trust the facts that police give us when they can’t adequately reckon with the racism that drives policing? 

Mr. Omer, through his lawyer, disputes the reason for the initial traffic stop. Was this incident an example of racial profiling; of ‘driving while Black’? We do know, according to WRPS data, that WRPS disproportionately surveil and target Black citizens through intelligence notes (aka street checks). We do know that there are a disproportionate number of Black Canadians incarcerated in Canada. 

One of the ironies is that the two reviews contradict each other in fundamental ways: one claims the CCTV video corroborates the officers’ versions of the events; the other argues that the CCTV is inconclusive (one camera had an obstructed view; the other camera’s video was too poor in quality). Which report is telling the truth? Neither investigation reviewed cellphone videos of bystanders or other witnesses. Why did the Police Services Board members not ask about these inconsistencies? 

One of the grossest parts of the Police Services Board report is in the “lessons learned” section: the disappointment expressed by WRPS that there wasn’t an option for restorative justice and/or reconciliation between the officers and Mr. Omer. Restorative justice is premised on people who cause harm acknowledging that they have caused harm. The police are not acknowledging anything, and why would they? It’s clear that other police services and our own Police Service Board are incapable of holding the WRPS accountable. 

There’s a subtle yet glaring mistake in one of the external reviews, exposing the mentality of policing. One of the reviewers slips from using “subject” to “offender” to describe Mr. Omer. An “offender” is a term reserved for someone who is guilty of committing a crime. Mr. Omer is not an offender. The Crown withdrew the charges in part because of the impact of the harm done to him by police. Policing divides the world into “us” and “them,” those who “deserve protection” from those who “deserve violence,” producing racist outcomes: Black people are incarcerated at 3x their population rate; Indigenous peoples at 10x their population rate.

I want the Police Services Board to do better. To start asking better questions and to speak out against systemic racism within the institution they are tasked with overseeing. If members of the PSB are unwilling or incapable of actually ensuring that Black community members are treated with dignity and respect, they should step aside.

The best way forward is to defund the police. Policing as an institution remains impervious to accountability, with its history of reforms mostly maintaining the status quo of systemic racism.  Locally, the demand has been for a 15% reallocation of the budget into Black- or Indigenous-led community-based approaches to community safety ( Let’s plan, now, to make sure a reallocation happens for the next budget. We have the imagination and the know-how. Do we have the conscience or the will? 

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