An Interview with Akwasi Owusu-Bempah

May 19, 2015

akwasiAkwasi Owusu-Bempah is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Adjunct Professor of African American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. He received his PhD in Criminology and Sociolegal Studies from the University of Toronto. Dr. Owusu-Bempah’s research focuses primarily on the intersections of race, crime and criminal justice. He is currently completing a project that examines the views and experiences of Black police officers in Toronto, Canada.

This article is part of a series of interviews with advocates, legal thinkers, community organizers and academics on issues related to Canadian civil liberties produced by CCLA volunteers. All responses are the interview subject’s own, and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint or positions of the CCLA.

CCLA: What drew you to pursue research in the intersection of race and the criminal justice system?

AOB: I had a neighbor as a child who was a retired cop. He was a role model and influenced me to pursue that career path. However, while I was taking my first criminology course at university, the Toronto Star newspaper ran its initial series on “racial profiling.” This series completely changed my trajectory. I saw more clearly how race influenced the police treatment of minority citizens. I also began to appreciate more fully how race and racism influences the professional experiences of racialized officers. After I changed my mind on policing, I first thought I would work to address race and justice issues as a researcher or policy advisor within government. However, after a couple of stints in the public service I realized that I would not be afforded the latitude required to do the type of work I wanted to do. Therefore I returned to school to study for my doctorate and ultimately became an academic, focusing my research almost entirely on the intersections of race, crime and criminal justice.

CCLA: How is the criminal justice system in Canada racialized?

AOB: This is an interesting question and can be answered in a number of ways. The criminal justice system is becoming increasingly racialized in that there has been a push, at least in some parts of the system, to increase racial diversity amongst justice employees. Therefore, we see more racialized police officers in large cities, for example. The criminal justice system is also racialized in terms of the populations it deals with. We see an over-representation of certain racial groups coming into contact with, and being processed by the justice system. A legacy of racism and discrimination in Canadian society means that Black and Aboriginal Canadians, for example, are more likely to live in poverty, to drop-out of school, and to be unemployed. These factors all contribute to criminal behavior, and thus the likelihood of coming into contact with the justice system (I should note that many members of these groups do not live in poverty, and the vast majority are not involved in crime in any way). Secondly, there is racial discrimination in the administration of justice in Canada. By this, I mean that some individuals within the system, certain institutional policies and systemic practices are racially discriminatory.

CCLA: Do differently racialized groups, particularly black Canadians and Aboriginal Canadians, interact with the criminal-justice system differently? If so, how?

AOB: Based on my research with police officers, I was say that both Black and Aboriginal Canadians are generally more suspicious and less trusting of criminal justice agencies and the people that represent them. The officers I have spoken to attribute this suspicion to a history of mistreatment by the justice system. Furthermore, as a result of this suspicion, Black and Aboriginal Canadians are sometimes less willing to engage with the police and may be more hostile during their encounters with law enforcement. Again, part of this hostility is due to a history of mistreatment, and a belief that they are being stopped or questioned by the police because of the color of their skin, rather than something they have done. This is important because of the reaction it is likely to garner from a police officer or justice official. If a citizen is initially hostile with a police officer, or even simply acting in a nervous manner (which could be seen as a sign of suspicion by the police), they are likely to get a negative response in return. This could be hostility or disrespect from the officer. It could be more serious, such as the use of force or some sort of formal sanction. Essentially, history has produced a vicious cycle of negative encounters.

CCLA: How do issues of race and racism play out within the different institutions of the criminal justice system, such as policing, the courts and incarceration?

First, police decisions to stop and search individuals may be based on race. This is what we commonly refer to as “racial profiling” or the decision to stop a person based on stereotypical beliefs about the likelihood they are involved in crime based on the color of their skin rather than on evidence of actual criminal behavior. Once a person has been stopped, race may influence the type or quality of treatment they receive from the police – the attitude or demeanor of the officer. We also have evidence that police discretion, their ability to choose whether to let someone go, to deal with a matter informally or formally, is influenced by race. Black and Aboriginal Canadians are less likely to benefit from positive police discretion than are white Canadians. Part of this has to do with race and part to do with other factors such as the neighborhood they live in, their socio-economic status, family situation and so on. The court situation is a bit different. We know that Black and Aboriginal Canadians are more likely to be held in detention while awaiting trial (less likely to be granted bail), which has a number of negative consequences once they reach trial because they are prejudged to be guilty. In terms of sentencing the statistics go both ways, sometimes these groups get off easier sometimes they receive more harsh punishments. A lot here has to do with the type of crime and, perhaps more importantly, the race and gender of the victim. In the correctional setting, Black and Aboriginal offenders are more likely to be stereotyped and labeled as gang members, even on rather flimsy or circumstantial evidence (this was recently identified as a problem by the Federal Correctional Investigator). This is problematic because the designation of gang member leads to higher security classifications, denial of certain types of jobs behind bars, and issues with the granting of parole. A recent report by the Correctional Investigator also cites racist taunts and discrimination in the allocation of institutional sanctions (discipline) as ongoing problems.

CCLA: How does the law and the justice system shape how we perceive racialized minorities?

AOB: I consider the criminal justice system to be a “race making” institution. If we understand race as being something that is produced or ascribed by society, rather than something innate or biological, we can consider how social institutions play a role in this process called “racialization.” (To understand how race is socially ascribed, rather than a biological reality, consider that I, as a mixed Black-white individual, have been thought of as belonging to three different racial groups in the span of just a few days while travelling in different countries. I was on one day “white” while visiting family in the African country of Ghana, I was “mixed” when traveling through England, a country with a sizable mixed population, and then “Black” again when I returned to Canada. The color of my skin had not changed, but rather social contexts in which I found myself had, and thus, my “race” changed too). Now to the point, the criminal justice system has long been used as a means of controlling specific populations, whether it be Chinese migrants in Canada during the early 20th Century, Mexicans in the United States a little while later, or Black people throughout the history of both nations. When the criminal justice system focuses its attention on these groups it has the effect of “criminalizing” them, crime and criminal behavior becomes a part of how we characterize and understand these groups. This process is facilitated by politicians and the media which focus their attention on the behavior of criminalized groups, further entrenching such beliefs in the minds of the public. As a result, when we think about Black people for example, many of us think drug dealer or violent criminal. This is not because Blacks are necessarily more likely to use or deal drugs (there is plenty of evidence to the contrary), but rather because society has associated such behaviors with to the Black race. Therefore crime becomes associated with Blackness and visa-versa. Similar processes have long taken place with regards to both Aboriginal and Chinese Canadians.

In what ways do policing in Canada and the United States differ? In what ways are they similar?

AOB: Good question. I think both are similar in terms of having a paramilitary structure, we share many policing technologies, reporting practices, etc. In fact I would suggest that there is a lot of cross-pollination. Canadian law enforcers are often trained by American police leaders and sometimes at American police academies (such as the FBI academy in the case of police leaders). We also often borrow their tactics, such as the now largely defunct drug interdiction techniques, and the currently used Drug Recognition Expert Program.

I think there are big differences in terms of scope and size. There are many more police officers in the United States than in Canada. This makes sense because their population is much larger. Proportionally, the US has a slightly higher police strength per capita (approximately 2.3 officers per 1000 residents in the U.S vs approximately 1.9 per 1000 residents in Canada). I think there are a few other major differences. First of all, in the United States, approximately half of all officers are members of small independent police services or departments with less than ten sworn members. In Canada we have a large number of small police detachments that are responsible for policing small municipalities, but these are typically staffed by officers from provincial services (The Ontario Provincial Police and The Sûreté du Québec) or by our federal police (The Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and therefore are subject to a higher level of oversight. Secondly, in the United States, the Sherriff (the top police officer at the county level) is elected. In Canada there are no elected police leaders, all are appointed. This brings a different type of politics into American policing. In terms of what the police do, I think the availability of guns in the United States introduces a different dimension to policing in that country. The most dangerous cities in America are much more dangerous than the most dangerous Canadian cities. As a result you see many more police shooting incidents in the US than in Canada. This is not to say, of course, that Canada is not without its use of force problems.

CCLA: Over the past half-decade, Canada has seen a movement towards an increasingly punitive criminal-justice system. Can you describe this process?

AOB: Yes, this is rather troubling because most of this shift towards increased punitiveness has taken place within the last decade, while crime in Canada has been declining for about two decades. The decline in crime predates the push for a more punitive justice system. In terms of specific changes, we have seen our justice system become more risk averse. A good example here is the rise in the remand population – the courts are less willing to let people accused of crimes out on bail before they go to trial. This means that there are many more people behind bars awaiting trail than there has been in the recent past. In fact, in man provinces more people are behind bars awaiting trial, having been denied bail, than there are people who have been convicted of a crime serving their sentences.

Some other changes include increased penalties, including the strengthening of mandatory minimum sentences, for both drug and gun crimes. Marijuana is an interesting one in this respect. The government recently introduced mandatory minimum sentences for growing small amounts of marijuana, despite growing calls for legalization or decriminalization and the introduction of a large-scale business model for the production of medical marijuana.

CCLA: In the past months, the United States has seen substantial popular protests in favour of police reform and against racial profiling and other racialized policies. Is Canada ripe for a similar movement?

AOB: I think Canada has been ready for a similar movement for some time. However, given the displacement of the Canadian people, I think it will play out very differently in this country. Although our histories (Canadian and American) are very different, racialized Canadians, particularly Aboriginal and Black people, have been objecting to their treatment at the hands of the police for decades. Unlike the United States, we are not as open in terms of our history of racial tensions and racial oppression, although I would argue that both exist. Also unlike the United States, we do not have widely available criminal justice data that is separated by race, meaning that it has been much more difficult to identify racial disparity and racial discrimination in the Canadian justice system. As such I think our general public has been slower to come to terms with the existence of phenomena like racial profiling. There are also qualitative and quantitative differences between the countries; America’s criminal justice system dwarfs the Canadian one by a large margin, especially in terms of the size of prison system and prison population.

I think Americans are more suspicious of government and are more likely to make their grievances known. I think Canadians are more tolerant, they are also less likely to engage in large scale public demonstrations (unless the local NHL franchise loses a big game). In all serious Canadians (with the exception of the people of Quebec) are less likely than those in other countries to protest. This may be because our quality of life is better. It may be because we are more complacent. Regardless, it means that our reforms come from somewhat different movements.