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Law enforcement don’t have to be woke, they just need to be wide awake

January 30, 2023  By Janelle Abela

Inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility (IDEA) are just a few terms that law enforcement agencies across North America are being asked to give attention to and integrate into daily practice. Some may misunderstand this as a left-wing woke agenda that demands everyone, including safety first law-enforcement, integrate appropriate practices immediately and as priority. This misguided expectation is then compounded by the limitations for tangible or practical solutions to enact change. The result? Anger, hostility, fear, shame and disassociation from conversations and actions related to IDEA. These feelings and actions lead to significant barriers and perpetual gaps between law enforcement and public outcry.

A recent research project—called wideawake—aimed to change perceptions of IDEA by creating and testing programming that is law enforcement centred. The goal was to create programming that can transform daily practice by providing key knowledge and developing new skills in response to complex concepts and problems that law enforcement face today.

Why is IDEA not a priority for all law enforcement agencies?

The law enforcement sector is rapidly changing, and it is challenging for agencies to keep up with community needs. There are a lot of pressing issues for law enforcement agencies to respond to, while keeping physical safety front of mind. When doing so, IDEA-related changes may become overlooked and seem incomprehensible in this field of work. The program was designed and tested to overcome this gap in responsive practice and ensure practical strategies became readily available in this space.

Across North America, globalization, travel and migration have created the necessity to pay attention to cultural nuances. While cultural appreciation allows for an understanding of different perspectives, law enforcement members need more insight into people’s actions, interactions and intentions to fulfil their daily duty and serve the public. In response, some agencies have made IDEA work a priority and are fully invested in the transformation process. “We all strive to belong. In any team or organization, a sense of belonging can be achieved through the development of a diverse culture where everyone is treated with respect and has equal opportunities to contribute. The commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion must be driven internally and is critical to ensuring the services we provide our communities meet the needs and expectations of all our citizens,” shares Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh of the Lethbridge Police Service.

As well, social movements continue to cause a significant divide between law enforcement and the public. Without trust from the community, law enforcement struggle with effective engagement, communication and efficiency on the job. The role of law enforcement members should be collaborative with the community, in response to problem solving, decision making and innovation. Unfortunately, without strong and consistent relationships, law enforcement remains a costly outlier for communities, despite the need for these services.

Even with injustices and inequity calling for change, appropriate prevention and intervention methods continue to lack. Logistics, research and accessibility were determined as the primary barriers for responsive programming.

The goal of the research, supported by Lakehead University’s Anthony Jeethan, was to better understand effectiveness of programming. “Confronting inequity in law enforcement work involves confronting bias that is deeply entrenched in the field. It’s easy to blame the problems with policing on a few hot-tempered police officers, but in reality, the problems are systemic in nature and reproduced within the micro culture of law enforcement. Law enforcement has traditionally relied upon an aggressive approach to safety, one which determines success by ticketing and arrest rates. The IDEA approaches to policing emphasize lower level de-escalation, and examining the inherent biases of aggressive policing: two keys of traditional law enforcement culture,” says Jeethan.

Throughout the research project, law enforcement agencies have been included in the development and testing process, to ensure it is responsive and reflective of need. A part of that process is better understanding why law enforcement agencies remain so distant from modern IDEA approaches and the development of practical applications. “Law enforcement is part of government. The government passes laws regulating the duties of police officers and we must abide with that framework. However, this is no real reason why we can’t adapt to societal changes. Progressive leadership leads to progressive changes and that takes time,” says Nawzad Sinjari, Staff Sergeant – Administration of the LaSalle Police Service.

Responding to immediate needs

A lot of law enforcement training is considered “outdated” and responds to a different time. The wideawake project’s team aimed to create something that responds to the needs of the public but was also focused on welcoming and being responsive to the needs of law enforcement. A human-first approach was applied so that participants can reflect on their own ideologies through practical scenarios for their personal and professional engagements at work and in the community. The content itself was presented in a non-traditional format, allowing individuals to focus on their learning instead of developing feelings of anger, hostility, shame or guilt, which are often related to discussions or learning that focuses on IDEA.

Senior Constable Leigh Rumball of the LaSalle Police Service, who recently participated in a pilot session of wideawake, says, “Police officers serve a diverse community. It is important to be able to communicate effectively and appropriately with all members of the community to enhance safety, increase public trust, solve crime, create partnerships and to try to make the justice system a fair and accessible system. Police officers are often the first contact that individuals have with the justice system and this interaction sets the tone for any future contacts.”

Jeethan adds, “Incorporating this type of training is essential for law enforcement officers to challenge and change traditional approaches to policing that revolve around aggression and escalation. Cultural shifts can successfully occur when the members of a group are supported in exploring their biases and assumptions. The wideawake program focuses on supporting participants in a way that is non-hostile and encourages personal thought and growth.”

Research outcomes and next steps

Pre- and post- learning assessment has showed knowledge and skills development, and an attitude change towards IDEA terms and concepts for many of the participants. “I was very surprised in the format of the training. It focused more on scenarios and how the police would respond. Speaking about these concepts was a fantastic starting point on dealing with different situations. By thinking and speaking about these subjects and trying to work in a better way, I feel that we will get a better response from our community members, reduce anxiety from members, likely reduce negative interactions and re-instill confidence in the police,” describes Sinjari.

Janelle Abela is the founder and CEO of Diverse Solutions Strategy Firm Inc.

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