‘Policing is a helping profession’: Outgoing Toronto Police Services Board Chair Alok Mukherjee on how to build a better cop

Anna Mehler Paperny – Global News, June 18, 2015

A lot has changed in the decade Alok Mukherjee has chaired Toronto’s Police Services Board.

And a lot hasn’t changed.

The Thursday board meeting when Mukherjee announced his retirement in August was the scene of heated debate around how to make police practices more racially sensitive. Police are still wrestling to come up with a way to deal with the growing number of people with mental health issues they encounter in a way that doesn’t result in someone’s death. The police force’s ballooning price tag has made it the city’s biggest budget item.

And Mukherjee has radical ideas for the police force whose oversight body he’s preparing to leave.

He discussed some of that in an interview with Global News this week. The interview was related to a different story, but its content seems particularly pertinent given his impending departure from his leadership role.

On how to fix carding

Mukherjee welcomed Ontario Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi’s proposal for a “standardized” carding policy across the province.

“Carding is not just a Toronto issue,” he said.

“It is a practice that is common to police forces across the province and the country. … And I think there is a similar absence of clear rules throughout the province. Which creates the risk for people who are innocent, who have not engaged in any unlawful activity, crime, who are not the subject of any investigation, that their names are going into the police database.”

But the jury’s still out on whether the new policy will help, or will eliminate the targeting of black residents.

“The proof is in the pudding: We’ll have to see what’s the substance of the regulation. Does it have enough strength? Is it clear enough? Does it really address the public concern around people being treated differently, profiled, made the subject of biased policing? Those are the elephants in the room.”

Mukherjee’s convinced most officers don’t mean to discriminate; he blamed discriminatory practices on a lack of clear rules and bad incentives.

“Where we went wrong was measuring the performance of our police officers by the number of cards they were writing. Chief Saunders says that quite clearly,” he said. “That, combined with a completely arbitrary practice in the absence of clear rules has created the situation.

“Because I do believe the vast majority of police officers don’t intend to discriminate.”

It’s important for the new policy to require officers to give anyone who gets stopped a “receipt,” Mukherjee said.

“The receipt says, this is the date and time and place where I stopped you and here’s the reason why I stopped you. Here is my name and badge number. And here is my phone number.

“I think that will again exercise a restraint against risk of discriminatory or biased policing. Because if you have that piece of paper and you feel you were treated differently, you have recourse.”

READ MORE: Mental illness overwhelms prisons, police: ‘We have an urgent problem’

On policing people in crisis

Increasingly, policing involves interactions with people in crises, many of them people with mental illness. It’s costing police forces more than ever – a significant driver of growing budgets. 

In making officers better at dealing with vulnerable people, Mukherjee argues, we need to change our conception of what a police officer is.

“Policing is a helping profession. And it requires you to have a great deal of empathy with those who are experiencing difficulties or going through hardship, through no fault of their own,” Mukherjee said.

“A great deal of time is spent by police officers helping those people. Preventing victimization.”

So police training and recruitment need to change to reflect that, he said.

“The more we can open their hearts and minds to what it is to be in that situation, I think, the more understanding they will be, to not be fearful of those people but to see them as human beings in difficulty that are being helped,” Mukherjee said

“So I think there needs to be a shift of mind … and a culture change.”

READ MORE: Should we be hiring more compassionate cops?

No longer about chasing ‘bad guys’

Part of that will take place at the recruitment stage: Mukherjee said the province is open to changing its policies to recruit based in part on applicants’ experience with vulnerable people, and their desire to be helpers rather than heroes.

That’s already starting to happen, he said.

“We are seeing more people who say they’re coming into policing because they want to help people, few who say they are here to catch the bad guys.”

And that part will take place when it comes to training: Officers get some de-escalation training now but it isn’t nearly enough, Mukherjee said: He wants to see them get refresher courses in defusing tense situations at least twice a year.

“Just as they practice using their gun regularly, they have to be able to practice de-escalation on a more continuing basis,” he said.

That can include anything from scenario-based training to online courses. But it has to be interactive.

“It’s not something you read in a book: You have to get in a situation and see how you deal with it, get feedback on what worked and what did not work.”

‘So you come to policing with less ignorance’

Mukherjee also wants to require officers to volunteer with agencies that work with people who’ve experienced trauma, who have mental illness, who’ve been assaulted or abused – something that accustoms them to being around people in need, people different from them.

“So you come to policing with less ignorance about that group, more comfort level, more empathy. And do it as part of your basic training. And there was a great deal of interest in that idea.”

And he doesn’t think Toronto needs to wait for the province to change its requirements: Why not get officers to volunteer with community agencies now?

“I think the mindset is changing. Police leaders now have to find ways to help rank and file officers,” he said.

“We have moved a long way from the days where police officers can take pride in saying they’re not social workers.”

More and more, he said, officers acknowledge that much of what they do is social work.

“And they’re okay with that. …

“There are some instances where they’re dealing with hardcore criminals and are engaging in that kind of conventional policing. But 60, 65 per cent of the time they are helping people. And I think there is an acceptance of that.”

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