It’s been almost 50 years since John Sewell began speaking publicly about the problems he sees with policing in Canada.
In 1978, he was in his late 30s and new to the role of Toronto mayor. At the time, the city’s police force was targeting the local gay community. Sewell, who’d previously observed police transparency issues as a city councillor, took a stand against what he viewed as discrimination by the force, putting him among Canada’s first prominent politicians to speak publicly in support of the LGBTQ2S+ community.
A year later, he would again criticize police actions after officers shot and killed Albert Johnston, a Black man with a history of mental illness, in his own home. Sewell speculates that his criticism of police cost him the 1980 mayoral election, which he lost by a narrow margin.
Time would bring about greater awareness of LGBTQ2S+ rights, racial discrimination and mental illness.
But, says Sewell, the underlying issues with policing in Canada remain.
His most recent book, Crisis in Canada’s Policing, published in September by James Lorimer and Co., examines systemic issues with policing and why change is so difficult. It is supported by the research of criminologist and sociologist Christopher J. Williams.
Crisis in Canada’s Policing lays bare a toxic police culture that suffers from cronyism, racism, sexism and a lack of accountability. Sewell describes countless reports designed to improve policing that have gone unheeded.
He makes a case for “de-tasking” police by reallocating resources to organizations better positioned to prevent violence and crime. This is his third book about policing, marking a return to the topic for the first time in over a decade.
The Tyee spoke with Sewell at his home north of Toronto. The interview has been lightly edited.
Amanda Follett Hosgood: Your interest in policing goes back almost 50 years, but you’ve written on other topics over the decades. What made you decide to return to this topic?
John Sewell: Well, it was really the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. All the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, pressure for change, I thought it would be really important to try and produce a book that tells people what police are actually about. Because there’s not a lot of discussion about policing at the end of the day.
People talk about it when there’s wrongdoing, when the police kill somebody or badly beat somebody up, but there’s not much talk about what the police actually do and what kind of changes have to be made. I thought, “Maybe that’s what I can write about.” Of course, the minute I decided that was the book, then I realized it’s really hard to change the police.
Looking at the last 50 years or so, has there been change? Or what areas are stubbornly difficult to change?
There’s been very little change, basically. There’s been a few things here and there. Carding, which went on in Canada for about 20 years, has now generally ended. I guess another change in policing is they have become much more weaponized. Most police officers now have Tasers, they wear body armour. But generally, it’s about the same, I’m afraid. It’s not good.
When mainstream society finally began to recognize the need for changes in policing, did it feel like suddenly a lot of people were waking up to what you’ve seen all this time?
Yes, I thought that there was some real opportunity for change at that point. It looked as though that would happen. A number of municipal councils throughout Canada started passing motions, saying, “We think maybe we should start to defund the police, or ‘de-task’ the police, and get some of the functions that the police are exercising and give them to civilian groups, such as responding to people who are in mental crisis.” But those motions got passed, and then everything stopped.
Do you feel like change slowed down again?
Oh, it stopped. It’s not slowed down, it’s stopped. There are two reasons for that, I think.
One of them is that police associations or police unions are very, very strong, and they go after anybody who suggests changes in police. They intimidate the politicians, and the politicians just don’t talk about policing at all. That was what was interesting to me after the murder of George Floyd. People started to talk about policing. They didn’t know very much about it, but they began talking about it, and they’re continuing to talk about it. I’m giving a speech at least once a month now about policing. That never happened before. Nobody ever wanted that. If they wanted me to speak, it was always about city politics. Now it’s about policing.
The other reason is that police boards are very, very weak. In some cases, they’re structured so they’re weak. Like, the mayor of Vancouver is on the police board there, but he’s not allowed to move motions or have a vote.
We assume that the police are the guys who are protecting us from all the criminals out there, and they’re involved in arresting people all the time. But in fact, across Canada, in large cities, the average police officer arrests about one person a month. Not very many. If you look at responding to calls for service, and this data by the way is all from Statistics Canada so it’s Canada-wide, it looks like police respond to two or maybe three calls for service in every shift. Some cities are lower. Calgary seems to be a bit higher than others. But it’s not very much.
This assumption that these are the guys that are protecting us from the criminals — sorry, they play a very, very small role in that.
The other thing is, we sometimes think the police can be involved in crime prevention. But in fact, that’s not true. Crime prevention is carried out by all of us in our social and community roles: teachers, social workers, shopkeepers and transit operators. They’re the people who are actually providing crime prevention and the idea of community security. Police don’t do that.
So, we’ve got a misunderstanding. And it’s a misunderstanding that the police play up very, very strongly. The presence of police officers, in fact, isn’t something that prevents crime or makes people feel safe. The police always say, “We have to have a police presence so that people will feel good.” Tell that to people in Ottawa today.
Let’s talk about Ottawa. I wanted to ask you about Ottawa chief of police Peter Sloly’s comments that there may be "no policing solution" to the current situation. Do you think police underestimated the convoy?
Yes, I think that clearly there was an underestimation of what this convoy would actually do. Now, he might have had some agreements with some of the leaders of the convoy, that they were going to do certain things, and they haven’t done them. But, in fact, I think there was a serious misunderstanding of what was actually going to happen. Then once they got there, the police didn’t know what to do to get rid of them.
As we know, many people now are talking about some much deeper issues here, and whether there’s a real core of this group that is intent on violence of some sort, which is very worrisome. But in fact, we have expected more from our police than they’ve given us in Ottawa. No question about that.
I live on Wet’suwet’en territory, and it’s been interesting to compare the police response in Ottawa to the response against Indigenous people blocking access to a pipeline route. Is there a tendency to overreact when policing response involves Indigenous people and people of colour, and to underreact to situations like the convoy?
Very much so. The police discriminate against people on the basis of race and they treat them differently, no question about that. The fact that so many truckers were white and very much like police officers, the officers weren’t all that tough on them. That’s a big, big problem. No question that you can be over-policed if you happen to be Indigenous or a person of colour.
Do you think a lot of police see themselves when they see the trucker convoy or maybe feel they understand, or they empathize a little bit more?
Very much so, and it’s a problem. We’re getting a better handle on that, police forces are, but they haven’t changed very much. The data is overwhelming that if you happen to be Black, your chances of being charged are five times greater than if you’re white. If you’re Indigenous, it’s probably eight or nine times greater than if you’re white. And you can see the effect of that just by looking at who’s in jails. I mean, the way you get in jail is by the police charging you and then going through the court system. Fifty per cent of the people in jail are Indigenous. They only make up eight or nine per cent of the population.
There have been questions about who controls police. During the most recent police action on Wet’suwet’en territory, police were criticized for sending forces there, while at the same time catastrophic floods were destroying infrastructure across B.C.’s Fraser Valley and Interior. B.C.’s public safety minister signed off on the order to allocate those resources. Yet government says, “We don’t control police.” So who does control police?
Well, they’re supposed to be governed by police boards.
Now, the RCMP is not governed by a board, it’s directly under the minister in Ottawa, which everybody says is always a problem. So, what it really means is it’s under the commissioner of police, Brenda Lucki, at the moment.
But you have to realize that the RCMP is just an awful, awful police force. I quote extensively Mr. Justice Michel Bastarache, formerly of the Supreme Court of Canada, and his report on the RCMP and how it treated women. He says the RCMP is misogynist and homophobic from top to bottom, from coast to coast. Then he says, maybe it should be disbanded. But I note the same recommendation was made in 2007, and nobody’s done anything about it.
Let’s talk about solutions. You talk a lot about going towards more local, municipal police forces. Are they more effective? Are they more accountable?
Yes, I think they can be. But I think we’ve got to start saying, what do we want police for? At the moment, they’re the default mechanism in society whenever we’ve got a problem. In terms of someone who is having a mental crisis, phone the police. Too often, you call the police and they shoot the person, because they don’t know how to deal with that. What we should be doing is we should be “de-tasking” police. Some people say defunding. I use de-tasking. Take those tasks, those functions, away from police, put them in the hands of community services. It’ll be less expensive, and we’ll get much better results.
Now, of course, the police oppose this strongly, because it will make them smaller, less powerful. But it’s what should be done. It seems to me, that’s one of the biggest changes we should be making.
You also make a good argument in your book that perhaps police don’t need all the weapons that they currently carry.
They don’t, because most of the calls that they respond to have nothing to do with violence. In Ottawa, only one out of every 80 calls for service actually is a priority-one call, where there’s some kind of threat to human life. The other 79, there’s not. You don’t need somebody with body armour and a gun going to those. There are 19 police forces in the world where the police aren’t armed, the largest one being the Metropolitan Police in London, England. They seem to operate perfectly well without guns.
It’s been very interesting to see today that the head of the Metropolitan Police literally just resigned. Why? Because there’s so much misogyny and sexism in the London police. The guns are not an issue at all. It’s that they’re sexist and racist. Which sort of makes the point, unfortunately, that’s police culture. That’s the thing we’ve got to change.
I wanted to ask you — and I’m a little afraid for the answer — do you think things are getting better?
I don’t think they are. I wish I could say, “Yes, they’re getting better.” I don’t see that happening yet. We need some people with political muscle who are willing to do the right thing, even though it might have consequences that are not terrific for them.
In my book, I give my personal example, where I spoke out after the murder of Albert Johnson by police, where they broke into his house and shot him to death. He was the eighth person killed in a 13-month period in Toronto by police. I spoke out, and I was very strongly criticized. I think that’s probably why I lost the election for the mayoralty a year later.
But what’s interesting about speaking out is the police didn’t kill a single person for the next 16 months. So the point is that you do the good, right thing. It has positive results, and we need a whole bunch of people who are going to do that. We need them on police boards. We need mayors and members of city council standing up for what’s right and taking on the police.
Until that happens, I don’t think we’re going to see much change.