On January 7, 2023, five officers from the Memphis Police Department beat Tyre Nichols to death. The officers were members of the department’s proactive policing unit, the ominously named Scorpions. Ahead of the release of the video of the killing, police forces across Canada put out hypocritical statements condemning the killer cops from a force in another country. What Canadian forces have not done, however, is to similarly condemn their own killer officers. And they have acted as though proactive policing units are not part of Canadian policing. But they are—and with the expansion of layered and community policing by forces across the country as a response to calls to defund, there is a likelihood such programs will grow–and harden into units like the Scorpions.
So-called proactive policing: racial profiling
At its most basic, proactive policing is posed as preventive policing, as contrasted with reactive policing, or responding after a crime has been committed and a call put in. It involves an open display of police presence and police power in specific areas and locations that police have claimed to be crime hotspots. Police claim that proactive policing allows them to discover offences and plans or operations to commit crimes beforehand so that the crimes can be stopped before they are committed.
In reality, the crime hotspots are typically poor neighborhoods and areas where there are open signs of poverty. One study of proactive policing even described it as “systematic and aggressive enforcement of low-level violations.” They are actually forces of community pacification in social war.
The leeway given to proactive policing units also means that they can readily overlap with practices of racial profiling and street checks—under the guise of crime deterrence. They also allow for broad targeting according to cultural or subcultural markers, such as style of dress, music, neighborhood hangouts—all of which can be deployed in deeply racist fashion. Proactive policing, by its very nature, allows for, and relies on, a tremendous degree of police officer discretion—and bias, prejudice, and extralegal activity. It depends in part on deep integration, with confederates and communications—snitch lines—in communities, which can be coercive and manipulative. Much of proactive policing, again by its nature, is unsupervised (even relative to regular policing).
Proactive policing also works according to an assumption of potential guilt, something like a reverse onus. This is a violation of a central principle of justice—innocence until proven guilty. All of which fits with growing calls for reverse onus (proving your innocence to the system) being pushed by police forces in the panic over “prolific offenders.”
Even more, proactive policing serves to break down community belonging and trust among targeted communities. It tells communities that they are a problem, they are deviant (as communities). It separates them conceptually, and materially, from the city they are part of. It says that people and places, as a whole, are untrustworthy, threatening, suspect. Entire communities are labelled as high crime, rather than as defunded and divested of social resources, which is the real issue.
Police forces claim that proactive policing works—but their only evidence is their own crime reports. Still, little reliably documented information exists on the effectiveness of proactive policing, even on the restricted terms of policing. Obviously, if police are targeting even low-level activities, with expanded discretion on that, there will be more “crime reported.” As the unit head for Langley. BC’s unit (the Special Response Team) put it: “If you’re out in the community, you will always find things.”
This says nothing about effectiveness. And it overlooks the very real harms that communities have highlighted. Some reports suggest, significantly, that crimes actually drop in periods when proactive policing is discontinued or suspended.
An earlier analysis by the New York City Civil Liberties Union found that at the height of that city’s proactive policing “stop-and-frisk” program, more than 685,000 people were stopped. Almost nine out of 10 who were stopped-and-frisked were found to be innocent. The overwhelming targets for stop-and-frisk were racialized people.
Proactive policing units can be found in police departments across Canada, in small city forces as well as large. Some have faced pushback from communities and some gained notoriety for their aggressively racist actions.
One of the most infamous was the discredited Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy with its racial profiling and carding (street checks). It aggressively targeted communities rather than crimes. Almost a decade ago now, TAVIS was recognized as an especially negative force in the neighbourhoods where it was deployed. Neil Price, executive director of Logical Outcomes, said of TAVIS: “It was seen as heavy-handed — something that was sweeping up people who were going about their business in search of so-called bad guys.” While TAVIS was shut down, something very much like it is looming as Toronto Police Service has again made community policing its preferred direction in response to its own findings of racism in its policing.
In 2014, the Regina Police Service said that it had developed an analytical platform that “links to our existing data management systems and allows us to more objectively identify where focused and visible policing efforts should occur.” This enables them “to quickly identify where more focused police work should occur.”
Some were pulled back during COVID, when people were inside their homes and less likely to be easy targets out on the streets. Since the shutdowns the rolled back units have been reviewed, as part of moves to expand layered policing by forces looking to repackage themselves as community-centered amidst calls to defund.
Only this month the London Police Service announced its plans to revive the force’s Community Oriented Response (COR) Unit. London police have requested city funding for the hiring of 52 new officers.
In 2021, the Owen Sound Police Service revived its Community Oriented Response (CORE) Unit. True to its class basis, it targeted, “high-visibility policing in hotspot areas, along with the downtown core, parks and parts of the city frequented by tourists.” Notably, “Other priority areas in the plan include housing and homelessness, low incomes and poverty.” The chief met with businesses to focus on areas “most in need of policing support and interventions.”
The chief of the discredited Thunder Bay Police Service also recently called for more proactive policing. The Thunder Bay force, notably, is one that has been the focus of multiple inquires into its racism, particularly anti-Indigenous racism.
The RCMP in Prince George, British Columbia, operate the Street Crew Unit and the Downtown Safety Unit (DSU). The Street Crew, with plainclothes officers, mainly targets drug sales and use. The DSU carries out high-visibility bike-and-foot patrols, throughout downtown. They are focused on low level property crimes, especially shoplifting—crimes of poverty—and supposed “prolific offenders.”
We might expect that these units will multiply and/or grow as the proactive units across the country emphasize targeting of so-called prolific offenders. This dovetails with the push coming recently from police associations and chiefs as part of the fear politics campaigns and calls for tougher bail policies by police forces following killings of police last year.
The problems with proactive units, and their targeted policing, were well known in Canada. Prior to 2020 many were being rolled back, because of public complaints and police fears of accountability. Former officer turned instructor, Greg Brown stated, in 2018, rollbacks were efforts to avoid “allegations of excessive force… racial profiling… being dragged in front of disciplinary panels, human rights tribunals, media stories about your alleged misconduct.”
Real proactive policies: defund police and support community health
There is no proactive policing. It is repression and social pacification against poor and racialized communities. It is an instrument suited to social war, not community wellbeing. If anything, it entrenches inequalities, white supremacy, and violence (the hallmarks of policing generally). We need to recognize it for what it is and oppose it. We must also be aware that police forces across Canada are turning to proactive policing, and layered policing programs more broadly, as efforts to reposition themselves as community-engaged in a context of widespread popular calls to defund, disarm, and dismantle policing.
Real proactive actions toward public safety and community health mean defunding police and re-distributing police budgets toward community-based resources. For housing, health care, childcare, community centers, youth activities, employment supports and jobs with living wages, harm reduction. These are only starts in the building of a society beyond exploitation and oppression, colonialism and conquest.
Of course, police are the primary domestic force impeding these changes, repressing social movements, through force. Policing is the violence of reaction, against anti-capitalist and anti-colonial mobilizations, in the interest of maintaining dominant structures. It is so whatever form it takes. There will be no truly proactive (and better) alternatives without the abolition of police.
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