The disproportionately high rate of visible minorities and poor people in Canada's prisons is rooted in the discriminatory decisions made by the politicians who run our cities, a recent study claims.
McGill professor Jason Carmichael analyzed the factors that determine the size of a city's police force and discovered it had little to do with crime rates. Rather, he found officials determined the number of officers on the ground based primarily on the size of the city's visible minority and lower-income populations, regardless of criminality.
VICE sat down with the sociologist to discuss his work, his hopes for the upcoming election, and his take that more police actually means more crime.
VICE: What is this study?
Jason Carmichael: What we were trying to accomplish was answer a fairly basic question. What spurred us on were recent media reports that were talking about a disconnect between the number of police we have on our streets in Canada and the crime rates—principally that crime rates are declining, but the number of police officers that we have in our cities is increasing. There was a lot of speculation in the media reports that I saw, and what I thought I would do is conduct a study whereby we could see what factors are, what structural conditions are actually driving this increase in the number of police we have in Canadian cities.
The first thing we did was try to asses the conventional understanding of this, which is to say people expect that population and crime rates would be the principal drivers. And so if I'm a city official and I'm trying to assess the need for more police, what I would do is evaluate the level of crime in a city. And if it was rising, I would hire more police officers.
What we find is that crime is actually not a predictor of how much police we have in our cities. It's actually many other factors.
The strongest predictor of variation in police force size across can cities is the number of visible minorities that are in a particular community. The second strongest predictor turned out to be the number of people below the poverty line, with crime not being significant.
Of course most people will argue—and I want to make sure I'm clear about this—they'll go OK, well the real reason you're seeing these kinds of effects is because these populations, visible minorities, and poor people are the source of the crime problem. But I'll reiterate that we're actually accounting for the level of crime in cities in our models. So the effects of the size of the visible minority population and poor populations are actually independent of crime rates. They're actually the central players in what city officials are looking at when they're gauging their environment, their city, and wondering how they should respond in terms of police force size.
I think we want suspicion of our city officials [and] of our federal officials who start to suggest that what we need to solve a crime problem that doesn't exist is more police on the ground.
Our model is suggesting that two factors are principally driving it: the poor people that are present in the cities, and the size of the visible minority population.
So our law enforcement is classist and racist?
Well, not so much our law enforcement, that's another question that other studies have shown, which is to say that there's plenty of research of in Canada that suggests that people of color or poor people are more likely to be stopped by the police, searched by the police, and so forth. In this regard, I think there's more of a political element. It is city officials who decide how many officers are going to be on the ground. And it appears that they are gauging this problem by reflecting on the size of these two populations: the poor and visible minorities.
What does this do to our incarceration rates?
Obviously, there's a trickle-down effect. The more police officers you have on the ground, the more likely they are to start to process visible minorities and poor people. Then they trickle into the criminal justice system at higher rates than the general population.
When you have a system that is organized around the idea that we need to increase police presence based on size of poor population or size of visible minority population, it stands to reason then that officers tend to then have a higher rate of arrest for these people.
Jason Carmichael. Photo courtesy Daily VICE
What do you think people should take away from your research?
I think there are two main takeaways. First and foremost, recent polling data in Canada shows that most people think we live in a post-racial society. And I think we need to reflect on that a bit more, question that, and start to recognize that there are many institutions—not just the criminal justice system—that make race very important. We might need to reflect more on how we're organizing our institutions and how race plays a role. Instead, we're just pretending that race doesn't matter, that ethnicity doesn't matter. And there's a danger in that. We stop reflecting on policies and procedures that might reduce the influence of race and ethnicity in our system by avoiding the fact that it exists in society.
The second takeaway is to possibly beware of the motives of politicians who are promising us more police officers, what's driving it. Especially in the absence of a growing crime rate. We have declining crime rates! Actually the only politician at the federal level I've heard talk about increasing the number of officers on the ground has been Thomas Mulcair, who, I think in BC, said he wanted to put $250 million to increasing the number of police in Canadian cities. I'm suspicious of this. I'm suspicious of the need for this, I think it's pandering to a particular population that I wonder why an NDP leader would pander towards. This is classic Conservative rhetoric, tough on crime, tough on law and order, so it's surprising to hear it from an NDP candidate.
But so I think we want suspicion, of our city officials, of our federal officials, who start to suggest that what we need to solve a crime problem that doesn't exist is more police on the ground.
What do we need to solve the crime problem that does exist?
I think the best solution, and there are many, is probably to resolve the problems that are on the ground in communities, things like poverty, inequality, and discrimination. Of course there are people who claim the only solution to a crime problem is greater intervention by the police. The problem with that approach is that the data doesn't support it. Just speaking about police intervention, most literature shows police don't have any impact on crime rates. They're responsive, reactive to crime, they respond after a crime has been committed, they don't stop it before it happens.
So it's difficult to argue that the solution to the crime problem is having people who respond to it increase in numbers. You need to look for more social solutions to stop the prevalence of crime to begin with.
So increasing the police force is actually the opposite of what is needed?
In my argument, absolutely, and I think research supports that. At best, police only respond to crime, in other words, they have no influence on reducing levels of crime in society. There's actually another argument that what they do is increase crime rates. Because when you put more bodies on the ground, they respond to more crimes. So more police equals higher crime rates.
Because of the nature of police activity, what it means is that a lot of their energy is directed towards members of visible minority and poor people, so it's actually increasing the likelihood that those people [will end up] in the prison system.
Student protests in London, UK. Photo via Flickr user bobaliciouslondon
What are you watching for in this election, then?
I was hoping for a lot in this discussion.The last election, the Harper government really pushed the omnibus crime bill, it was a very partisan bill to get tougher on crime, they increased sanctions for criminal offenders and what I've been waiting for—and have yet to hear—is any response from the other parties about retracting some of that. To the extent that those policies have been proven wholly ineffective in the United States, this tough on crime approach. "Lock 'em up, more cops," it hasn't worked, for decades. And so for Canada to go down that road, after so much evidence of failure, seems misguided. It's not surprising to me to hear it from a Conservative government because it fits with their rhetoric, it fits with their ideology, but to not get any pushback from other parties is a bit surprising to me. Of course we're hearing the Liberal Party talking about [legalizing] marijuana, and I think this is likely a positive step in terms of de-emphasizing the role of the criminal justice system overall. It's less about whether marijuana should be decriminalized or not but more about just decreasing this overall criminalization in society. I do like what I hear there for sure but I would like more discussion there about the overall way we as a society manage the crime problem and how we're going to use the formal system to deal with the problem versus a more social system: trying to intervene in communities, trying to help communities build themselves up so people in those communities are less likely to engage in crime.
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