Recently we learned the name of Halifax’s new police chief. I hope Dan Kinsella has broad shoulders and inexhaustible energy, because he has a lot to do.
The new chief will already understand that not everyone loves and trusts cops, but does he understand what he’s signing up for in Halifax? He’s taking over a police force that has for many years, sometimes through neglect and sometimes through a stubborn commitment to bad policy, undermined its own efforts to connect with the city’s diverse communities.
Even though statistics show street checks unfairly target visible minorities (especially Black people), the leaders of Halifax police have defended the practice, insisting it somehow helps them prevent crime, without being able to show any proof of that.
Now finally, (after a direct order from the justice minister Mark Furey) police have suspended the practice. Note, that doesn’t mean the practice is gone for good; the same people who suspended it can just as easily resume it.
And while that does mean that (at least for now) police are less likely to hassle innocent Haligonians, it does nothing to heal the pain street checks caused.
All those people who were subjected to countless traffic stops, asked to show ID as they walked down the street, and treated with suspicion simply for being in public places, will continue to feel hurt and mistrust police. You know how you still stew over that time a cop pulled you over when you know you did nothing wrong? Now imagine that happening to you and your friends and family every few weeks for your entire life.
I don’t know how police can fix the damage. Kinsella should talk with the affected communities early and often to find out what they need. I suspect an apology would be a good step, but not the only step.
I have no doubt Kinsella got his new job by saying all the right things about building bridges in the community, fostering trust, community stakeholders, etc. Assuming the chief really believes those things, he might also want to consider if an increasingly militarized police force is really the way to do it.
Recently, Halifax Regional Police told HRM Council they need a $500,000 armoured personnel carrier. They couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide any specifics on how they’d use it; they couldn’t provide a single example of an incident in the police force’s entire history where they actually needed heavy military equipment.
Suppose the planned mass shooting at Halifax Shopping Centre had happened. It’s hard to imagine how the vehicle would have helped there. Recently, there were reports of an armed person at Halifax Central Library. Police responded quickly and ably. What would they have done differently if they’d had this vehicle?
Police want it for the same reason I want a leather chair and a better phone; people always feel they deserve the best equipment their employer can buy, whether they need it or not. But this isn’t just a waste of money: it’s another step towards militarizing police, pulling them further from any community-connecting efforts.
I’m sure the next time there’s a big protest downtown, the responding officers will find it reassuring to know they can have an armoured personnel carrier alongside them, looking menacing and intimidating citizens.
But unless the protest degenerates into some sort of Mad Max death race (which doesn’t tend to happen), I can’t see why they need the machine. Unless it’s to discourage people from protesting at all.
So chief, as you start your new job, consider if you’re here to serve and protect the community or control it. If you’re here to control it, tanks and racist policies are good tools. But if you’re here to serve the community, it’s time to take this police department in a new direction.
Editor’s Note: A slightly different version of this column, written before the announcement of Kinsella’s appointment, appears in the May 2019 print edition of Halifax Magazine.