Is it possible to make our community safer for the vulnerable and marginalized folks living in my neighbourhood? To find out, I attended an Oct. 12 event hosted by Fredericton City Councillor Cassandra LeBlanc, Ward 10 (unceded Wolastoqiyik territory) featuring a presentation by the Fredericton city police on “community safety.”
I naively hoped there might be some discussion about implicit bias in policing and systemic racism. However, the presentation was completely blind, either willfully or woefully so, to these well-documented realities. Presenters painted a black-and-white picture of how to keep a community “safe,” while completely ignoring the risk of danger or death faced by marginalized populations that arise when primarily white, wealthy property owners are encouraged to report “suspicious” behaviour to the police.
The presenters told the assembled audience (primarily white, 55-plus, and from the wealthy neighbourhood of Sunshine Acres) that community safety would be achieved by increased surveillance, by both police and residents, and reporting “suspicious” persons or activities to the police. The presenting officer offered no nuance to the discussion around what might constitute “suspicious” behaviour and constantly reassured the audience, “you know what is suspicious in your neighbourhood.”
This phrase sounded dangerously close to: “you know who belongs and who does not.”
The apparent — and completely ignorant — logic was that if police were called and the seemingly “suspicious” person was of no concern, there would be no consequences for them. The suggestion is that if you aren’t doing anything wrong, a police presence should be comforting, not alarming, for you.
Really? Try telling that to the family and loved ones of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black child who was shot and killed in 2012 by a security guard of a gated community after residents reported him as “suspicious.” Or to the families and loved ones of Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi, two Indigenous people killed in New Brunswick in June 2020 by police officers responding to calls for a “wellness check” and mental distress.
These high-profile and deeply alarming deaths have been scarred deeply into my heart and mind, along with the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020. They are but a few high-profile cases among the many racist, violent deaths of BIPOC folks at the hands of police. The statistics on higher levels of police surveillance, discrimination, violence, racial profiling, as well as over-representation of BIPOC folks in the criminal justice system are well documented.
Discussing these incidents and the systemic racism that exists in our society and institutions should be required elements of any community events about making our communities safer. At the Fredericton event, however, the assembled audience and the presenting officer did not wish to discuss these distressing realities.
I had hoped that the recent high-profile and tragic deaths of Moore and Levi, so close to home, would provoke at least some education, sensitivity, or consciousness-raising within the police force at least, if not the primarily privileged, middle-class audience. Apparently not.
When I attempted to spark a discussion on this topic, the presenting officer said that we weren’t going to discuss profiling.
So at least he knew what profiling was. We just weren’t going to talk about it.
The presentation concluded with an offer for residents to sign up to join the Neighbourhood Watch. This involved neighbours forming local groups that would stay in close contact with police, to collect and report data on incidents deemed “suspicious.” To keep tabs on the others.
This plan for Fredericton sounds dangerously similar to the type of neighbourhood groups highlighted in a recent article published in The Walrus about the rise of surveillance and protection of private property in gentrified areas of Toronto, through the use of porch cameras for home surveillance.
The article discussed the exact process of othering I witnessed at the presentation by the Fredericton Police: the surveillance of people deemed “not to belong” by neighbourhood groups, groups that band together to assert ownership over private property and space and exclude the suspicious others. It just so happens that “suspicious” is often code for BIPOC folks, people living with mental illness, or people living in poverty. This kind of exclusionary othering is not only damaging to social cohesion and diversity but also dangerous and deadly.
In the article, Chris Gilliard, a Harvard research fellow and critic of surveillance tech companies, states the risks clearly: “the police should not be called unless someone’s life is in danger… When you call the police on a Black or Brown person, there’s a good chance you are putting their life in danger. I don’t think that is a thing one should do lightly.”
I wish I’d had these words to share with the assembled audience that night.
I went to the presentation hoping to discuss the safety of our community. I live in Ward 10, and I know that our community goes beyond property-owning NIMBY folks in Sunshine Gardens. Our community includes newcomers, street-involved folks, people who use drugs, people living in poverty, BIPOC folks, and people living with mental illness. I had hoped this presentation might help us come together as true neighbours and discuss how we can improve the health, safety, lives and wellness of these diverse folks. Instead I was offered othering, suspicion and surveillance.
We must wake up, educate ourselves, and acknowledge the fact that increased police presence is not the answer to increasing safety for everyone living in our communities
Calling the police is not a benign intervention.
Making communities safer involves getting to know your neighbour, talking to those who don’t look like you and educating yourself about your own biases — especially those simmering beneath your consciousness that cause harm to already vulnerable groups. Take a step out of your safety zone and help another. Only when all community members engage this way will our communities be truly safe.
Julia Hansen (she/her/elle) lives on unceded Wolastoqiyik territory (Fredericton). She is an advocate for social justice and an occasional contributor to the NB Media Co-op.