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Most Winnipeg cops are colour-blind

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One of the first things I discovered 35 years ago as a newly minted cop on the Main Street beat was that aboriginal people had a top-notch sense of humour. There were also many who had a ton of social problems.

I spent a lot of my career working with First Nations people as victims, witnesses and suspects, mostly downtown, with a short stint in the North End. Like those along the Main Street drag, many of them shared in the problems of poverty, addiction and lack of education.

Those issues, then and today, were and are often the precursors for trouble and the reasons why cops and aboriginal people meet in the first place.

That said, in the day-to-day routine of policing, most of my colleagues and I got along well with the people with whom we worked -- including aboriginal people. Not all, of course, but then I don't think as cops, we got along 100 per cent with any population.

Aboriginal leaders, pundits, some academics and other experts would likely not agree. In fact, many of them are inclined to paint quite a different picture and are bent on spinning a scenario that says relations between police and First Nations people are in crisis -- something we've all heard about, far and wide, for decades.

Last Christmas there was a whiff of impropriety with allegations that some Winnipeg cops had dropped a young aboriginal male off at the city limits with little in the way of outer clothing while temperatures hovered below freezing. The so-called Indian industry went to work armed with rumours, letting the world know of the supposed conflict between police and aboriginals.

People like Grand Chief Ron Evans backed down when the story began to look fabricated.

The shooting of Matthew Dumas on a North End street a few years ago wasn't racist. It was tragic for the Dumas family and life-altering for the officers involved.

Such unfiltered stories are the tip of the iceberg. There are scores of others across the country that allege racism, brutality and worse.

It's well-known that in proportion to their population, aboriginal people are over-represented in the prison system, and the "industry" is more than willing to blame the police and their tactics. And that's enough "proof" to convince some of the unhealthy relationship between the aboriginal population and the police.

Somewhat less attention is paid to the truth that the aboriginal population is more likely to be victimized than most, often by its own people. It turns out aboriginal people face violent victimization at a rate double that of others.

Those in the "industry" who use the police as scapegoats are looking for answers in all the wrong places.

Blaming the cops is wrong. At least that's my read of a report Statistics Canada released this spring -- one that seems to have received very little attention. Wonder why?

It confirms those long-known facts. That there are a lot of First Nations people in jail and that as a population, aboriginal folks suffer more from crime than most others.

But particularly interesting was the information that appears to run contrary to the "industry" condemnation of the police-aboriginal relationship.

Surveys among aboriginal people found there was a belief that police performed their duties sometimes in average fashion but more often, very well.

Only a small percentage rated police performance badly. (Ten per cent thought the police enforced the law poorly while 13 per cent thought that police did a subpar job of treating people fairly.) Sure, it's not perfect, but not that bad either.

Overall, across Canada 70 per cent of aboriginal people expressed confidence or great deals of confidence in the way police do their jobs.

This report has caused a number of people to wonder about those who are bent on driving a wedge between the cops and aboriginal people and the extent of their stake in the "industry."

In any event, the report should speak volumes to anyone convinced that allegations of malfeasance in law enforcement have led to a crisis and a near-irreparable relationship.

There are difficulties. What would anyone expect given the wide range of social problems experienced by the First Nations population and the fact that it's the cops who are the front line, triaging those difficult circumstances.

Bigots on the job shouldn't surprise anyone, anywhere. But if you look closely, you'll find the vast majority of cops in Winnipeg are colour-blind. After all, 20 per cent of Winnipeg's force is aboriginal or some other visible minority -- a figure higher than the rest of the city's population (where 15 per cent are visible minorities.)

It seems the positive aspects of this report make the blame game just a little harder to play.


Robert Marshall is a retired Winnipeg police detective.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2011 J6

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