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by Rahnghild Watson Reinartz
The ethnographic is changing in Victoria. Once a capital known for its quaint British customs and cuisine, it is now home to gumboot dancing and sushi. As members of a diverse community, we are faced with the historic complexities of living together. There are no simple answers. There are, however, steps we can take to move towards communication, understanding and acceptance. That communication may take many forms. Getting to know people one on one rather than making assumptions based on a group is a good place to start the process. That's just what three officers of the Victoria Police Department and some members of the African community gathered to do last December.
Asmerom has been living in Victoria for eight years. During that time he has been stopped by the police on numerous occasions, either when walking or driving and especially when in the car with a group of friends from his community. "They'll (the police) say it's a routine check or we fit a description of somebody," said Asmeron. But being subjected to this over and over is disturbing for him. "Every time I get pulled over there is no reason for it. Every time they stop you, you get nervous wondering what have I done, what's wrong."
"If I spin my tires then I can see why they stop me, but if I am not doing anything, then why?" asked Guuleed Omar. Like Asmerom he is often stopped and questioned by the police. Before moving to Victoria, Guuleed lived in Edmonton and Toronto but he is quick to add that it's only here that these things have happened to him. Now married with a young child he is adamant that things have to change here between the black community and police.
Members of the Victoria Police Diversity Unit want to hear from Asmerom, Guuleed and others. If there are ethnic groups that have concerns with the way they are being treated by the police, or if they just want to build a rapport with the police department‹it's vital to make the contact. "We were asked to partake in that discussion with the young adults as an initiative to create a relationship, to find out more about the issues between the police and the African community," said Constable Raj Randhawa.
During the meeting, concerns were brought forward by the African youth. As Corporal Todd Wellman remarked, "It was challenging to make use of all our communication skills. To listen, not interrupt, not make excuses, not try to justify or explain." But as the frustrated accounts from the group reached a peak one police officer present felt impelled to apologize for the actions of other officers. "This was not his responsibility, we were not asking for apologizes. But as he was a person of colour he was saying that he understands the way it feels when these things are happening," commented Asmerom. "You know it is not all the police that treat us like this. My friends and me make complaints. If they check the records they could see who it is that is stopping us all," added Guuled.
"It's a first step, we will meet again and continue building that rapport that has been established," said Corporal Wellman. "I think as we work, as we evolve as a society and as a police department, and we start seeing people as people first without certain rank, status, colour or whatever, that is when we will really grow and start treating everyone as equal. It's going to take an awful lot of work but what else are we working for?"
"Since the meeting I haven't had any problems actually," noted Asmerom. He's satisfied that word of his community's willingness to better relations with the police will reach the department and that things will continue to improve in the future.
Rahnghild Watson Reinartz is the Project Coordinator of Voices.
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