Police in schools: trusting the research
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On March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth published a blog post attempting to discredit recently released research about the negative impacts of policing on Black and Indigenous students in Winnipeg schools.
Smyth’s post likely went unnoticed by most members of the public. However, his singling out of community activists, equity-based research and community-based researchers did not go unnoticed by the research community Smyth is trying to undermine. Since then, an open letter in defence of the research has garnered signatures from more than 200 scholars.
The report in question is an equity-based review of the School Resource Officer (SRO) program in the Louis Riel School Division (LRSD) which led to the cancellation of the program. Nobody is surprised that the police chief disagrees with research that suggests police be removed from schools; what is concerning is Smyth’s apparent profound disregard for and misunderstanding of the need to amplify the voices of those most negatively impacted by policing.
Imagine a research project that asks, “Is this building accessible?”, but only considers the majority of responses to be valid. An accessibility review that discounts as outliers those who can’t access a building is useless in efforts to make it more broadly accessible.
Equity-based research helps us to understand how racism is baked into social structures in ways that may go unnoticed by those in the majority. An equity review seeks out minority voices that represent people being harmed by a policy that appears to benefit the majority. Smyth’s attack rests on the idea that highlighting voices of a harmed minority is bad research.
Good equity-based research is based on the premise that minority voices are needed to develop policy that has equitable outcomes. A full and honest accounting of the impacts of policing in Winnipeg is impossible without seeking out the experiences of Black and Indigenous people. The report in question focuses on the ways policing in Winnipeg is shaped by colonialism and anti-Black racism.
In contrast, the positive evaluations of SRO programs that Smyth endorses (several of which were done in partnership with the Winnipeg Police Service) do not ask questions about colonialism, race, gender, sexuality, disability, class or any other dynamics whose impacts on policing are well documented in decades of research.
Imagine a research project that asks, “Is this building accessible?”, but only considers the majority of responses to be valid. An accessibility review that discounts as outliers those who can’t access a building is useless in efforts to make it more broadly accessible. Smyth’s imagination about what constitutes good research about policing is akin to that approach.
In the case of police presence in schools, students who have evidence-based fears of police (often rooted in negative experiences with neighbourhood and family policing) find schools to be less accessible and safe when police are there. If we want to make schools safer for them, we need to focus on their experiences.
Smyth’s attack perfectly encapsulates the defensiveness and dismissiveness faced by people who raise concerns with policing. He says: your voices are the minority and therefore they don’t matter. Moreover, Smyth makes it personal: he highlights the researcher and the parent activists who have been brave enough to be faces of this position held by a much larger constituency of people.
It is difficult to be a researcher who is critical of the police, and Smyth demonstrates why: the police don’t take well to criticism, and they have tactics for icing out their opponents. We take Smyth’s attack on equity-based research as an affront to the work we are all doing to build evidence-based anti-racist policy.
We reject his attempt to chill researchers and our community partners who are working to produce a base of evidence that will inform policies and practices to counter the harmful effects of systemic racism in our schools and beyond.
Smyth’s attack perfectly encapsulates the defensiveness and dismissiveness faced by people who raise concerns with policing. He says: your voices are the minority and therefore they don’t matter.
The LRSD specifically commissioned an equity review and hired Fadi Ennab, an experienced, highly qualified anti-racist researcher, teacher and activist with deep ties to the communities whose experiences they sought to understand.
An important finding of the LSRD review is that when they are present in schools, police contribute to stressful, unsafe conditions for Black and Indigenous students. This compromises the success of those students. Its effects are racist. This has been found in research about SROs across the country, and thanks to this report and those who were brave enough to share their experiences, we know it to be true in Winnipeg, too.
Chief Smyth should heed these voices rather than undermine their legitimacy. Equity-based reviews of police in Winnipeg schools are important, and should be at the center of setting policies aligned with racial justice and reconciliation, just as the LRSD and the Winnipeg School Division have tried to do.
Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land is associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg. Joe Curnow is an assistant professor in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba.