There was a time when local queers could look to the Ottawa Police Services with pride. They were heading in the right direction when it came to our community’s issues — like gaybashing and police abuse. Of course, we didn’t get there without some controversy and confrontation — including a list of a dozen or so demands.
In time, the police took our demands seriously, formed a liaison committee comprised of their people and our people, and ultimately hired our top policing activist — David Pepper — into the force, where he worked from within. A new chief, a very progressive chief named Brian Ford, impressed us with his commitment to community policing and his understanding of equality and sexuality issues.
Ottawa gays and lesbians, with local bathhouse raids and police harassment a distant memory, embraced the changes, investing ourselves in the belief that we were leading the nation in police-gay relations.
That notion, correct as it was for its time, has become counterproductive. That’s because the issues, police leadership, and even the responsibilities of Pepper, have all changed. Chief Ford is long gone, replaced first by Vince Bevan who largely stalled the progressive initiatives of his predecessor, and now by Vernon White. He has an engaging personality but is moving the city backward to more traditional policing. Deputy Chief Larry Hill — a great friend of our community — has retired after being three times passed over for the chief position and has recently been replaced by Gilles Larochelle, who is a cop’s cop like White.
Meanwhile, Pepper has been promoted to head of communications, a position in which he is supposed to head off bad press. We all owe Pepper a big thank-you for his activism in days long gone and for his role in moving us a big jump forward in Ford’s day (we at Capital Xtra awarded him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006). No doubt he’s still a progressive influence at headquarters, but given his new position we need to get over thinking that he’s there for us.
At the same time, the liaison committee has transformed. It once held some of our best strategists and put forward a list of demands of what our community wanted. It now instead leaps to the defence of the force when it gets any criticism. At its most recent meeting, the liaison committee chose to avoid a serious discussion of a recent and problematic internal report on recruitment to the force, and instead focus on how the report had been communicated to the public. And while I personally find the committee members to be nice people, people I’d enjoy sharing a beer with, the fact is that new, skilled blood is desperately needed (all you have to do to participate is show up).
And what would that new, skilled blood do? Well, they’d stop taking communications director Pepper’s word on everything. They’d come up with a new list of things it expects from the force. It would stand up for gays and lesbians and our allies.
Let’s expand on that. Our movement has had three dimensions from its beginning: sexual freedom, social justice and human rights. In recent years, gays and lesbians have won tremendous gains on the human rights front from government and the courts; trans people are not so lucky, but they’re making progress. The Ottawa Police Services has profoundly internalized the idea of bare-bones gay equality rights and is a leader in recognizing trans rights.
But progress is severely lacking on sexual freedom and social justice — the other two major threads of our movement. Sexual freedom is under threat both from federal legislation (witness the age of consent and artistic freedom bills of recent years) and the courts (the Supreme Court of Canada, for example, refused to force Canada Customs to obey the law even after finding they were flouting it).
Progress on social justice has also been backsliding in recent years, with more and more children growing up in poverty, mass murders of prostitutes in several Canadian cities, youth homelessness and so on. We know that approximately 35 percent of street youth identify as queer, many of them ending up on the streets after running away from homophobic families, sexual abuse by their church leaders, schoolyard bashings and so on. We know that with all the pressures they face, gays and lesbians are more likely to become addicts and end up on the street that way. It can be nasty out there.
These become policing issues. One of the first surveillance cameras installed in Ottawa was put up a few years ago in the gay cruising area of Strathcona Park, at the request of police. Why is that a police priority?
Police have been smashing crack pipes under their heels, pipes that were handed out by social workers applying harm reduction, an idea that entered the mainstream as gay men addressed the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. Many of those crack addicts are gays and lesbians, and the crack pipe program owes its origins to our community. Why are the police harassing addicts; addiction is a health issue, not a policing issue. Why is the liaison committee silent even as gays and lesbian AIDS activists lead the fight to keep the crack pipe program?
Police have been stepping up their harassment of prostitutes. Prostitutes have the right to sell their bodies for revenues, as surely as a woman has the right to choose an abortion or have sex with another woman. Prostitution is particularly an issue that affects trans women. So, again, why is the liaison committee silent?
It’s time for a new list of demands. One that moves beyond the easy issues of those of us who live comfortable lives now that our human rights are recognized. The queer community’s policing issues of today encompass the issues of the less fortunate and the issues of sexual freedom. Our police force is far from a leader in these matters. And the liaison committee shirks from addressing them.