- Racialized Policing: Aboriginal People’s Encounter with the Police by Elizabeth Comack
On June 21, 2004, the Saskatchewan Commission on First Nations and Métis Peoples and Justice Reform released its final report presenting a roadmap for changes in the delivery of justice to First Nations and Métis communities. 1 The attention given to policing in the report on justice reform was not surprising. The freezing deaths of Indigenous men had featured prominently in public discourse when the Commission began its work in 2001. The men are alleged to have died because the police had picked them up and abandoned them on the outskirts of town in extreme temperatures, a practice known as a “starlight tour.” In the report’s policing chapter, the commissioners stated that they began their work “with the belief that racism [was] a factor in the delivery of a justice system that generally begins with police contact.” 2 They made eleven recommendations to improve policing services for Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan. 3
Elizabeth Comack’s recent book, Racialized Policing: Aboriginal People’s Encounter with the Police, offers a welcome update on the state of policing in Canada. The book focuses on policing in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and Comack describes several case studies in those provinces. She also analyzes policing practices in Winnipeg’s marginalized neighbourhoods, where Indigenous peoples are concentrated.
In addition to carefully setting out the case studies, Comack places law enforcement in its proper historical and colonial context, providing evidence of the importance of policing in maintaining the dominant society’s social and political order. In the opening chapters, Comack presents convincing reasons to believe that law enforcement constitutes considerably more than a benign effort to realize safe societies and communities. Her book outlines the ways in which race informs decision-making from the initial stages of an individual’s contact with the criminal justice system, where law enforcement plays a decisive role. Ultimately, Comack questions the legitimacy of the criminal justice system and its claim that it acts in fair, unbiased, and racially blind ways.
One important contribution of Comack’s work lies in the language the author uses to discuss discriminatory law enforcement practices. Rather than debating “racial profiling,” Comack uses the term “racialized policing” to focus readers on the ways in which discriminatory factors inform policing. Her work advances the scholarship on policing by exposing the racialized ways in which “police carry out [End Page 436] their work as ‘reproducers of order’ in our society” (p. 15). Comack eloquently argues that race matters, while she sidesteps the challenges of proving that the unsavoury practice of racial profiling actually occurs (see, in particular, chapter 2, “Racial Profiling Versus Racialized Policing”). Comack’s use of a wealth of documents, including reports from commissions of inquiry, news reports, and scholarly literature, allows for a rich investigation. The inclusion of qualitative interviews, which offer the perspective of research subjects who share their lived experiences with “racialized policing,” adds to the originality of her analysis.
For introductory students, the cases in this book will introduce the inequities that drive the criminal justice system. Readers with a background in Aboriginal policing issues may find that the case studies review well-known facts. Comack might have addressed the needs of more knowledgeable readers by expanding the book’s scope to include cases from other jurisdictions. While Comack’s topic and approach may be particularly instructive for undergraduates, scholars and researchers at all levels will benefit from Comack’s analysis of the role policing plays in societies like Canada, where race is a central determinant of criminal justice involvement.
In her conclusion, Comack sets out a plan for change that includes a focus on social inclusion and community cohesion. She emphasizes “community mobilization” as a solution to the problem of biased law enforcement and invites all readers, including police and community-based agencies, to facilitate positive structural change (p. 233). In his foreword, Donald E. Worme, QC, argues that exposing police abuse is a task for all those who value “the...