Home / The Arrest Handbook Series: Heavily Policed Communities

The Arrest Handbook Series: Heavily Policed Communities

What do we mean when we say Heavily Policed Communities?

It’s a reality that some communities face far more policing than others. This often includes more expansive and continuous police surveillance, more frequent interactions with police, more discrimination experienced during those interactions, and even more unlawful arrests. It also means less privacy and significant harms to dignity and security of the person.

But why does this happen? There are several reasons webbed behind this. Many laws may look neutral on the surface, but on the ground, they can have disproportionate impacts on specific marginalized groups. Unfortunately, countless laws deliberately target these groups. What is even defined as a crime often comes from the perspective of someone privileged — someone who doesn’t need to steal to eat, who owns property that needs to be protected, who has access to legitimate economic participation. 

One example of this is people experiencing homelessness, who face an extensive collection of laws and bylaws around sleeping, sheltering, and selling things or asking for money. These laws usually are deliberately made to restrict their activities. As a result, it’s often unclear where, if anywhere, they are allowed to legally go and exist. This means having to navigate a confusing network of rules when just trying to sleep and meet basic needs.

When combined with the conscious and unconscious prejudice and stereotypes held by police and policing institutions as a whole, this results in some communities being policed more than others. Are police spending more money to prioritize fighting “white collar crime” or corporations who are committing climate crimes through pollution – or are they prioritizing policing Indigenous resistance to the destruction of their lands and waters? When in the past five years, the Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG) unit of the RCMP has spent $50 million dollars policing resistance to resource extraction in British Columbia,[1] it’s impossible to ignore where policing institutions choose to put their weight.

What are the impacts of heavy policing?

Policing data from 11 out of BC’s 12 municipal police forces from 2016 – 2021 confirms what many already know to be true: Black and Indigenous people are consistently overpoliced at rates disproportionate to their population.[2] In Vancouver, Indigenous people were hit with 16.93% of charged offences despite being 2.37% of the population and Black people were charged with 5.29% of offences despite being 1.02% of the population.[3] This trend is duplicated across Canada with the RCMP and their heavy policing of both of these communities.[4] 

Heavy policing results in enactments of colonial violence: both Indigenous and Black people are overwhelmingly overrepresented in police-involved deaths in Canada. As stated in the Yellowhead Institute’s brief, Police Brutality in Canada: A Symptom of Structural Racism and Colonial Violence, “Between 2007 and 2017, Indigenous peoples represented one third of people shot to death by RCMP police officers (Mercer, Fiddler, & Walsh, 2020). The Ontario Human Rights Commission found that a Black person was more than 20 times more likely to be shot and killed by the police compared to a white person (Ontario Human Rights Commission, 2018).”

The more marginalized you may be, the more legal barriers and policing interactions you are likely to face. For example, if you are a racialized, trans, HIV+ sex worker experiencing homelessness, you are likely to experience policing interactions at a significantly higher rate than someone who is housed, white, and doing another type of work. However, this kind of discrimination is often invisible to those outside the communities, considering most police do not gather or publish data on their interactions with people experiencing homelessness, sex workers, trans people, or HIV+ positive people. 

On the contrary, because these intersecting criminalizations push people into the shadows to avoid contact with policing, it creates a culture of stigma where groups like sex workers, people who use drugs, and people who are HIV+ are more likely to be put in dangerous situations but are less likely to report crimes to police.[5] For example, people who use drugs are less likely to feel safe doing drugs in places where others can help them if they overdose or calling 911 for help when there is an overdose.[6] The overlapping areas of criminalization of sex work, drug use and drug possession, are known to undermine public health, such as efforts to reduce HIV transmission and treatment.[7]

This means marginalized communities are heavily policed, but under protected.

Heavy policing leads to over-incarceration. It’s part of the cycle of criminalization, marginalization, and poverty. Heavy policing also has a broad range of severe and profound effects on peoples’ experiences of mental and physical health, as well as their liberty and dignity in society.

In 2022, the Quebec Superior Court in Luamba [8] found that random traffic stops by police are unconstitutional because of the disproportionate representation of Black people, and particularly Black men, in these stops and subsequent arrests. The court found that this discrimination not only has significant impacts on the individual Black people, but on their families and communities around them. Effects of racial profiling also include the acceptance of Black people’s treatment as second-class citizens, impacts on wider ambitions and expectations of social and economic inclusion, and internalized racism. Black people also become less trusting and collaborative with the police, a paradox which makes them more vulnerable to crimes committed in their own communities.[9] The BCCLA is intervening on the appeal of this case to ensure that the Quebec Superior Court decision to be upheld and to put an end to random traffic stops.

Working towards decriminalization and access to justice

To help combat the impacts of heavy policing, the BCCLA is fighting for the decriminalization of drugs, sex work, HIV+ non-disclosure, and all forms of laws and bylaws which essentially criminalize the human right to shelter with dignity for those experiencing homelessness. This is also why the BCCLA is fighting against racial profiling and for increased police oversight and accountability. 

Heavy policing is an essential context to understanding rights on arrest for those so frequently being targeted by police. For The Arrest Handbook, the purpose of the Heavily Policed Communities Chapter is to explain some of the most impactful laws that these communities specifically have to navigate. While it was not possible for us to include everything, this information is essential so people can access their rights. We hope that the priority areas in this significantly expanded Chapter will be useful to members of these marginalized groups, and the people who support them, to understand and access their rights.

You can help by spreading the word and distributing the Handbook to people and organizations who could use it in your community. We hope this Handbook can contribute to one small piece of the relationship building and grassroots solidarity that is needed to bring change through resistance.

[1] Brett Forester, “RCMP has spent nearly $50M on policing pipeline, logging standoffs in B.C.” (6 January 2023), online, CBC News, <https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/rcmp-cirg-spending-resource-extraction-1.6705076>.

[2] Surrey’s police force was excluded from this data as it was formed in 2021, having previously been under the jurisdiction of the RCMP.

[3] Akshay Kulkarni, “Data shows Indigenous, Black people have more police interactions. Advocates say it reflects systemic racism,” (12 February 2023), online, CBC News, <https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/bc-systemic-racism-police-1.6744961>; Stephen Harrison, “General occurrence report data highlights systemic racism in B.C. policing,” (6 February 2023), online, Needs More Spikes, <https://www.needsmorespikes.com/blog/2023/2/6/general-occurrence-reports>.

[4] Krista Stelkia, Police Brutality in Canada: A Symptom of Structural Racism and Colonial Violence, (July 15, 2020), online: <https://yellowheadinstitute.org/2020/07/15/police-brutality-in-canada-a-symptom-of-structural-racism-and-colonial-violence/>.

[5] See for example sex workers Centre for Gender & Sexual Health Equity (CGSHE) at the University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa, Almost one-third of sex workers unable to call 911 due to fear of police, (26 January 2021),  <https://cgshe.ca/app/uploads/2021/11/UBC-UofO-Media-Release-One-third-of-sex-workers-unable-to-call-911.pdf>.

[6] Dr. S. Monty Ghosh, “Changing how policing departments respond to overdose calls could save lives,” (17 February 2021), online: CBC News ; https://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/opinion-police-response-to-overdose-calls-1.5893257>;

Canadian Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use, Calling 911 in Drug Poisoning Situations, (March 2017), <https://www.ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2019-04/CCSA-CCENDU-Calling-911-Drug-Poisoning-2017-en.pdf>.

[7] Canada, House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, The Criminalization of HIV Non-Disclosure in Canada at p. 21, (June 2019), <https://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Committee/421/JUST/Reports/RP10568820/justrp28/justrp28-e.pdf>.

[8] Luamba c. Procureur général du Québec, 2022 QCCS 3866.

[9] See paras 391-468 for full discussion of the evidence.