Advancing "WE" in Policing
By Joe L. Couto
One of the key objectives I set for my pedagogy (my method and practice of teaching my students) is developing an appreciation for peoples’ “lived experiences”. We often hear this phrase during these days of difficult conversations about systemic racism, on-going and entrenched sexism, and particularly when we talk about promoting greater understanding of peoples’ cultures, beliefs, experiences with oppression, etc.
Happily, these conversations are becoming the norm not just when we talk about diversity issues, but even in the world of commerce. I particularly like the definition from Michael Sony (2019) from Namibia University of Science and Technology found in his chapter in Green Supply Chain Management Practices and Digital Technology: A Qualitative Study: “(Lived experiences) refers to a depiction of the experiences and choices of a given participant and the knowledge that they gain from these experiences and choices” (p. 254). As noted by Patton (2002), lived experience, “…is not second-hand. It is experienced in how an individual perceives, describes, feels, judges, remembers, makes sense of, and talks about the experience” (p. 439).
Understanding another person’s lived experiences is not as simple as it sounds. In academic terms, I have spent almost a decade exploring police culture and the lived reality of police officers (especially 2SLGBTQIA+ cops) from the outside. As a civilian working in and observing policing environments for 17 years, I have garnered in-depth knowledge and observations with enough distance from the subject that I can critically question taken-for-granted assumptions in law enforcement such as the police solidarity that so often protects officers who engage in unethical behaviour.
When it comes to lived experiences, I’ve come to agree with German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of everyday phenomena (a fact or situation that we perceive to exist) as mostly hidden. Heidegger – intellectually brilliant but shamefully not immune to the attractions of Nazism during his lifetime – argued that our perceived reality is covered in multiple layers of forgetfulness or Vergenssenheit. In other words, what we perceive may not be “real”. This “concealment” presents us with the possibility of recollection or “disclosedness” through being Dasein, a phenomenological concept denoting an interpreting entity such as a human being. For Heidegger, the goal was to pull our essence or existentialia as human beings out of forgetfulness (Heidegger, 1927).
This is something I kept in mind when I recently had the privilege of getting to know retired RCMP Inspector Baltej Dhillon, who 30 years ago courageously broke down barriers for police officers who wished to express their identities as members of the Sikh community by wearing a turban as part of their uniform.
In my research on police culture, the uniform is consistently identified as an important, traditional artefact in constructing an officer’s identity. In my studies, many police officers have and continue to express how powerful and important the “putting on of the uniform” is to their identity. It is a source of pride in their profession, their extraordinary authority, and their connection to those who have served before them.
For Dhillon, his “lived experience” was both deeply personally and professionally important, as he articulated in this article: “What does a Canadian look like?”: The first Mountie to wear a turban reflects on racism and inclusivity.
In conversation with him, I asked Mr. Dhillon how he feels as he observes the public discussion about racism (particularly involving policing) taking place today based on his own experiences in law enforcement. Here is what he said:
“It’s my view that the conversations that are starting to form need to be heard by police leaders and then put into action. Too often, we have simply carried on after ‘talking’ and not followed up with any concrete action items. The notion of diversity and inclusion is not a side conversation or a committee that is formed to merely offer platitudes, but rather requires the intention of having it infused within all aspects of operations in law enforcement. If not, we will merely continue to offer knee jerk solutions and responses which in the long run do more harm than good, and further deteriorates the effort towards a representative and equitable work force.”
I then asked about his “lived experiences” when discussing issues of discrimination, racism, etc. In policing, we rely on the lived experience of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) members to educate all police members on challenges such as systemic racism. I asked him what message, in looking back on his career and experiences, he would give to young police professionals who want to truly understand these issues:
The idea of developing a deeper understanding of social justice issues is no longer a nice to have, but a must have. Before we expect our young police professionals to understand the issues, its incumbent upon every senior police leader to set an example by increasing their understanding, using their privilege and power to create space for these conversations, be a champion of diversity and inclusion, not just encourage but practice in their own lives personal and professional social justice values.
When needed, their voices must be loud and clear and their actions swift when condemning and responding to discrimination or racism. They must also themselves encourage the sharing of the lived experiences – create a safe space, allow for criticism, and invite debate on what is lacking. Then and only then can we expect a change in culture and a desire to truly understand the issues.”
What I took from this great Canadian is that now is the time for important conversations that leaders at every rank need to put into action as we listen to and understand the lived experiences of people like Baltej Dhillon in opening our hearts and minds to real change. Every person in the justice sector must champion this change in everything we do and condemn anything that undermines our authentic embrace of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Joe Couto is Associate Faculty at Royal Roads University and also teaches at the University of Guelph Humber and Humber College. He serves as Director of Government Relations and Communications with the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police
To learn more from Baltej Dhillon, click here to register:
Join Joe as he engages in a virtual conversation with Baltej Dhillon on June 30 from 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm as part of the Advancing WE in Policing’s The “Stronger Together” Conversation Series with extraordinary individuals making a difference in advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion in Canada.
Heidegger, M. (1927). Being and time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.) Blackwell
Neustaeter, B. (May 14, 2021). 'What does a Canadian look like?': The first Mountie to wear a turban reflects on racism and inclusivity. CTVNews. https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/what-does-a-canadian-look-like-the-first-mountie-to-wear-a-turban-reflects-on-racism-and-inclusivity-1.5427883
Patton, M.Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation. Sage Publication
Sony, M. (2019). Green supply chain management practices and digital technology: a qualitative study. In E. H. Sabri (Ed.), Technology optimization and change management for successful digital supply chains. (Ser. Advances in logistics, operations, and management science [aloms] book series, p. 254). Business Science Reference, an imprint of IGI Global. https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-5225-7700-3