Q&A with Kanika Samuels-Wortley

Kanika Samuels-Wortley answers questions posed by attendees of our Racial Profiling in Policing conference.

How would the academic panel respond to the idea that their research, in some way, perpetuates the negative stereotypes of Blackness by describing the "Black experience" as monolithic, which perpetuates the perception of Black people as vulnerable, as victims, and nothing but the colour of their skin?

I think that's a great question. However, I'd like to reframe that when I speak to how our stereotypes have an impact on the experiences of Black Canadians, I'm speaking to the point that it doesn't matter if we come from a different socio-economic status or if we live in a different neighborhood. It is stereotypes surrounding Black peoples that has a significant impact on the way that others treat us. So, as I can appreciate the response that suggests my research might be perpetuating stereotypes, what I am really trying to demonstrate, what I'm hoping to show, is that the experience of Blackness has a lot to do with the way that we are perceived in society. If we were to ignore this and not critically examine stereotypes, we will never be able to unpack the harms of racial bias and racial discrimination. I think it's important to highlight that we are not a homogeneous group, but as a result of societal stereotypes and of racial bias, we are treated as such. In the research I am currently conducting, I specifically speak to the fact that Black youth have very similar experiences with law enforcement , despite the differences, and uniqueness within the Black community.

In your paper, To Serve and Protect Whom? Using Composite Counter Storytelling to Explore Black and Indigenous Youth Experiences and Perceptions of the Police in Canada, you describe the particularly low perceptions youth have towards police. One respondent state “I don’t think police are the answer, but they’re also advertised as the only answer, and that needs to change.” What are your thoughts on police talking about racism at schools?

I think it's important for police to talk about racism. I think for way too long they've avoided the discussion which is why we continue to see racially biased practices. However, if police officers do choose to go into schools and talk about racism, I think that officers would need to be cognizant and have an understanding that the police uniform and what the police represent, in general, can be traumatic for some students. I don't know if specifically going into schools to speak about racism is the route to go, but I think it is important for officers to acknowledge that racial bias is part of policing. More than anything efforts need to come from the top, the leaders within a police service, to speak to racism. However, in whatever format it may be, I think there needs to be a concerted effort to make sure it's in a way that is inclusive and supportive of students who may not have had positive experiences with police and a recognition of these traumas remain at the forefront when they consider strategies on how to engage with youth in their communities.

What would more just policing look like?

One of the biggest issues that I have with policing is initial training. There is more of a focus on use of force, or the potential dangers of citizen interactions. I am not implying that these aspects are invalid, however this focus automatically creates an “us” versus “them” dynamic of how society can be dangerous and thus officers need to navigate a dangerous society, but that is not always the case. This takes away from the beauty of engaging with people, in informal ways. I think ‘just’ policing means more of a focus on respectful policing, respectful engagement and communications with the community members they are serving. There really needs to be less of a focus on enforcement and more on respectful engagement.

My research suggests negative youth perceptions of the police stem from the idea that police only care to question and arrest their friends or community members. They believe the police never engage in a positive way. Police fail to humanize themselves. It can be simple -- walk through a neighborhood and take off that armor, and I don't mean specifically their body armor but I mean take off the macho enforcement persona.

One of the questions I often ask youth is: if I were to do a presentation with police officers on how best to engage with the community, what should I tell them? Often the responses are simply “I wish they would just talk to me nicely”. That's really what it comes down to, respectful engagement. Engage in conversation, check up on someone. How are you doing? How's everything going today? How’s school going? And maybe not even ask questions but simply engaging in conversation can go a long way. I believe that's how we can potentially build better relationships with youth in the community. It shouldn't just be lip service; it really should be an effort by all police officers, not just those who are tasked with community work. It needs to be ingrained within policing culture. Community members should feel comfortable turning to those who are tasked to keep them safe. If we are re-imagining policing, we need to start with the basics -- what can police can do for a community?

Are there any suggestions as to how we can ensure that the officers that are trained have DEMONSTRATED cultural competency?

Cultural competency training needs to be more than a box to tick. I'm troubled that this training is often a one-day endeavour that does not allow for a full understanding of the importance of embracing our diversities and differences among one another. We need to be consistently learning about other communities. What does it look like to me? It really is to have an appreciation of our diverse selves and our uniqueness, how we are and what we all bring to the table in society.

Is policy reform in police due to raised public awareness about racial injustice or proof of the failure of these initiatives? What kind of evidence would be necessary to determine the true cause of this reform?

Based on my research, I would argue that if there was actual meaningful differences as a result of reform measures, I would have heard this when I spoke to Black and Indigenous youth. This speaks to the fact that these initiatives need to be on a continuum and cannot just be implemented because it is the “in” thing to be talking about racial bias. It's clear that these issues have been around for decades, but now it seems to be at the forefront and discussed within the mainstream. I'm hopeful because these are now global discussions as opposed to being siloed among community members and researchers. We are now having these discussions in our homes and seeing it on our news. We are seeing a racially diverse group of people, raising their voices. My hope is that because the public are more aware, the police will be forced to be held accountable to make sure that anti-racism initiatives are doing more good than harm.


Kanika Samuels-WortleyKanika Samuels-Wortley

Assistant Professor, Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Carleton University

Kanika Samuels-Wortley is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Carleton University. Dr. Samuels-Wortley's research centres race and racism, youth engagement in crime, policing, and critical race theory. She has co-authored several provincial reports for the Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services, including the Roots of Youth Violence. She has presented her research on systemic racism in policing in both provincial and federal processes including the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security. Recent publications can be found in Crime and Delinquency, Race and Justice and the International Criminal Justice Review.

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