The Peterborough Community Race Relations Committee (CRRC) hosted the second of its Instagram live event series called “Tough Conversations with Peterborough Police” on Monday July 6. This week, CRRC Executive Director Angela Connors was joined by Peter Williams, the Community Engagement and Development Coordinator for the Peterborough Police Service (PPS). It was previously reported and announced that Sergeant Ted Branch would be the guest for July 6’s conversation, but was moved to July 13 for undisclosed reasons.
Williams moved to Peterborough in 2010 to work with the Peterborough AIDS Resource Network (PARN), because his educational and career background is in population health, education, and community development, primarily regarding HIV/AIDS. His work at PARN with the Harm Reduction Works program and the Peterborough Drug Strategy, which is how he encountered the PPS, and police officers more broadly, for the first time.
“When I was a wee lad, being gay was still illegal, so I didn’t grow up with the best relationship to police. They scared the bejeezus out of me,” Williams explained. “I can remember being in bars that were raided [by the police].”
Canada’s 2SLGBTQIA+ history is fraught with police violence. Being a British colony had lasting effects on policy in the 19th century, and although Canada celebrated its confederation in 1867, homosexuality was criminalized and pathologized throughout the early to mid-1900s. Sexual relations between same-sex people were partially decriminalized in Canada in 1969, but police raided queer spaces several times after – most notably in 1981’s “Operation Soap” (often referred to as Canada’s “Stonewall Riot”), 2000’s Goliath’s Sauna raid, and 2002’s Pussy Palace raid – because of “gross indecency” occurring under circumstances including more than two people. Patronizing a “bawdy-house” was a criminal offense of gross indecency until June 2019, and records that regard homosexuality as criminal activity can be expunged as of December 2017, but the range of activity that qualifies for expungement remains narrow.
Connors and Williams met in 2017 at an event called “Kitchen Table Conversations”, and she recalled a conversation that they had about the PPS.
“At the time, you kind of jokingly said something about ‘getting the stink of the police on the CRRC,’” Connors said with a laugh. “Maybe you want to elaborate on that just a little bit?”
Williams laughed, and explained: “It’s the story of what it means to be an ally and being so uncertain about how to find a way forward [with difficult conversations].”
“I was trying to have a conversation that represented all sides,” he continued, but understood that Black and Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC) “may not want to be slimed with police” or want to engage. Williams commended Connors’ enthusiasm to engage both then and now.
“Sometimes we’ve got to get into these uncomfortable situations in order to move forward,” she said.
Connors then asked about Williams’ role of Community Engagement and Development Coordinator with the PPS. It was created about six years ago after two years of development.
Williams joined the PPS in 2015. His role and roles like his are relatively new to police services and are usually held by an officer, not a civilian, like him, he said.
“[The PPS] wanted to make a stronger commitment to their community partners and have someone who understood the community in a way that could helpfully, for lack of a better word, right-side the way they were engaging,” he said.
Williams went on to explain that the language in policing has been changing over the past decade to work on “community safety and wellbeing.” The Community Engagement and Development Coordinator is focused on a lens called “crime prevention through social development.”
“The objective couldn’t just be about [law] enforcement, and incarceration was not the best outcome for most folks,” he said. “So how do police engage in activities that focus on community wellbeing?”
On the topic of defunding the police, Connors and Williams explored police abolition versus police reform.
“‘Defund [the] police’ may sound like a great slogan, and for some abolitionists, that’s exactly what they mean. But I think for most folks that I’ve been talking to, they’re talking about reform,” Williams said.
He went on to say that the history of the continent has been racist, particularly against BIPOC.
“So the police are symptomatic of that [racism],” he explained, “but so is the mental health system, and so is social services, and so is child services. So all of those parts need to be working at transformation, and far as I know most of them are, and some of them are doing amazing work.”
“I don’t know of one police officer that doesn’t believe in police reform and helping police stay in their lane, and helping police work more collaboratively with their partners to be more effective in solving community problems,” he said.
Williams also echoed some of PPS Inspector John Lyons’ concerns from last week’s conversation about overwhelming other community social services with cases that the police are currently better authorized and equipped to handle.
Connors then broached the topic of “wellness checks.” A wellness check is a broad, largely undefined term used to describe when police and emergency health services come to visit a person, usually in their home (though sometimes in public or on the roadway), to assess the safety and/or risk of that person to themselves or others. Over the past few months, at least three people of colour have died in wellness check-related incidents in Canada: Regis Korchinski-Paquet and Ejaz Choudry in Toronto; and Chantel Moore in Edmundston, British Columbia.
When frontline workers cannot or feel unable to handle difficult clients and individuals, police and their community partners will send Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams (MCIT), Williams explained. To request a MCIT, concerned individuals must call the police.
“A police officer who’s had training will go out [on a call] with a mental health worker, or a nurse, or somebody else, so that they can do a more wholesome, holistic assessment of what’s going on. And if the person [in crisis] is not connected to services, see that they get connected to services,” he said.
Regarding police training, Connors asked, “When folks are applying to be police officers, what is the level of awareness that they should have for going into policing?”
Williams admitted that he is still learning how the Police Services Act and the newest framework for policing in Ontario influence hiring and recruitment, but was clear that the PPS does not hire young, freshly graduated police officers.
“What we strive for, what we try to attract, are candidates that have ideally had a previous career,” he explained, “and then, when they’re hired, they go to police college,” with continued training throughout their time on staff.
Williams said little about interpersonal professional accountability within the PPS union, the Peterborough Police Association (PPA), when prompted, but suggested that demands for reform regarding the police budget be focused on the 10 percent of the budget that does not go towards PPS salaries.
“At a municipal level, we need to focus on – once we pay for the salaries, which we have little control over right now – what do we want to pay for that’s about programming? Training? Improvement and revision?” he said.
Williams suggested that people interested in defunding the police in Peterborough also look at the assignment of the Police Services Board, which has three municipal seats and two provincial seats, and the Community Wellbeing Plan.
The pair then spoke briefly about the “No Hate” campaign. About 10 years ago, the No Hate campaign was initially launched to respond to the 2SLGBTQIA+ community’s concerns that the PPS was not responding appropriately to their calls, says Williams.
“We’ve overhauled the campaign several times over the years, most recently a couple of years ago, to make it much more inclusive of all forms of hate-motivated incidents, to include everything from disabilities, to LGBTQ, to race-related, religion-related [incidents],” he said.
However, according to a 2019 Trent University study, only 16 percent of the PPS identified themselves as being a member (3 percent) or ally (13 percent) of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, despite the city being considered as “a ‘hub’ for the LGBTQ+ community, especially for those who identify as Transgender.”
Connors posed a question a viewer of the livestream asked: “What happens if an officer is racist? Why not just fund the [community] partners of the police?”
“The dangerous part of an oversimplified ‘defund the police’ [slogan or campaign] is to imagine that there’s anywhere near enough money to actually support the rest of the system and make it what it needs to be,” Williams replied, who wants to push for proportional taxation.
Regarding racist police officers, he explained that the model of internal investigations has been applied to sexual violence and assault, but has not been applied to racism.
“There is now a framework for case review, where a neutral panel of outside partners come in and help to review cases where sexual assault or violence has taken place to ensure that police have actually been doing what the protocols call for and that the professional standards are being followed,” he said.
Williams invites further conversations with himself via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or citizens can leave a comment with the PPS.
The next “Tough Conversation” will be with PPS Sergeant Ted Branch, who is in charge of staff training, on Monday July 13 at 12 p.m. EST on the CRRC Instagram page @racerelationsptbo.