There was a time when Ottawa Police Services really didn’t get our community. Some members beat up gay men or forced drag queens to give blowjobs. When bashers attacked us, police response ranged from lackadaisical to hostile. When we were killed, the silence was deafening.
For 16 years, we’ve had a queer liaison committee to the police. They challenged the force to come to terms with our community’s existence. They demanded sensitivity training and queer-friendly recruitment. They demanded access. And they made progress.
This is good. But not good enough. Today, we often hear from liaison committee members and others in our community: “The Ottawa Police Service is the best in Canada in relation to our community.” But what’s left unsaid, because I think it’s far, far too often left unthought, is what ought to be the follow-up sentence: “But we still have a ways to go on a bunch of issues and we need to work hard on them.”
The OPS, for example, has made only very limited progress in instituting genuine community policing on a democratic model — one where the community directly sets the priorities of policing, not the police themselves. I would have expected the queer liaison committee, more than any other group in town, to be the leading pressure group for this kind of deep structural change. Given our history with police oppression, wouldn’t that be logical?
And how about harm-reduction strategies? The gay community brought those into the mainstream with out prevention-based approach on AIDS — Canada’s whole approach on AIDS is, in fact, based on a harm reduction approach put forward by our community. Those same approaches should be applied to drugs and prostitution. In Ottawa, our AIDS groups — again, our community — are in the vanguard of such programs as needle exchanges and crack-pipe distribution. Gays and lesbians have relatively higher rates of drug addiction, and studies elsewhere show that some 35 per cent of street youth are queer — and they’re prime targets for addictions.
Ottawa police harass people using pipes handed out by health care workers, and police leadership is actively trying to shut down the crack-pipe distribution program even though there’s proof that it has already, just two years in, saved a bunch of lives. They want to shut it down based on outdated ideological bumpf: a Say No To Drugs philosophy. That’s been Canada’s approach for years and, well, it clearly doesn’t work.
Similarly, our prostitution laws force pros to peddle their ass in unsafe areas of town and try to hide from police harassment. Let’s not forget that gay hustlers are prostitutes, too. We need an approach that recognizes that prostitution is here to stay and creates dignity and safety for those who choose to sell their bodies for sex.
There are other issues where policing could be improved: I’m not even trying to be comprehensive here. You’d think members of our liaison committee would be acknowledging the progress made to date by the police, but then leading on issues that affect many in our community. Issues that are not always comfortable to deal with. Issues over which our own people, and our allies, are marginalized, oppressed, and exploited. And subject to police harassment.
But they’re not. They’re out of touch with the issues that affect our community. As they themselves recently noted, it took four days before committee members were aware that Dixie Landers had been in a nasty bar fight. Out of touch. And suffering from bad leadership.
But don’t blame them; at least they volunteered. Look in the mirror. We need a handful of politically sophisticated operatives, who understand the importance of harm reduction programs and related philosophies, to step up and volunteer their expertise on this committee. Come on, let’s get on with it.