Police are Not the Answer to the Question of Public Safety

Safety in our communities is everyone’s responsibility.
Photo by Michael Förtsch on Unsplash.

In August, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary received four complaints about drugs possibly being slipped into drinks in bars in downtown St. John’s. The month ended with the release of a concerning video recorded on George Street. September brought Sexual Violence Awareness Week following an investigation into said video, as well as a statement from the George Street Association expressing hope for a “more dedicated presence” of the RNC on George Street “for the safety of all.” Not only did the suggestion of increased police presence do little to address public safety concerns, it also appeared unseemly amidst allegations of misconduct within the RNC. 

October brought us a report by First Voice’s Working Group on Police Oversight, which includes a recommendation for the creation of a civilian-led Board of Commissioners that would help promote accountability in the province’s policing practices. Conversations about public safety and policing are hardly new in Newfoundland and Labrador, but this recent series of loosely-connected events suggests a certain momentum. Here’s hoping it gains some traction.  Incidents of sexual harassment and violence continue to abound. We continue to see generally unsafe behaviour taking place in our communities, especially involving our most vulnerable and marginalized members. 

When it comes to matters of public safety, I think most of us can agree:

  1. We, the people that reside in this city, should be able to go out in public without risking our safety;
  2. We, as community members, have a duty to support one another and help keep each other safe in public as best we can; and
  3. Increased police presence is not the answer to the question of public safety, especially for marginalized people. In fact, as recent history has shown us, it has made people less safe. 

Our safety is not only a right, but a basic need. We should be able to move through the world without emotional, physical, or sexual harm – whether we are riding a bike through the neighbourhood in the middle of the day or having a beer downtown in the middle of the night.

Safety within our communities is possible, and everyone should be able to enjoy it, no matter who they are or where they find themselves–whether at home, on George Street, or inside a police vehicle.

As members of a community, we each have a moral and social responsibility to help keep each other safe. It’s crucial that we start stepping up. We must take it upon ourselves to learn what to do if we witness questionable behaviour, harassment, or violence in public. It’s important that we feel confident and empowered by our skills to speak up and check in on each other. We have to become willing to intervene–if it is safe to do so, of course–to prevent, or de-escalate situations before they go awry. The resources exist to provide that knowledge and it’s up to us to take the initiative, educate ourselves, and develop our skill set. 

We all know it’s easier to do nothing. It’s easier to turn the other way. It’s easier to choose to ignore what we think is not our business. It’s easier to avoid the extra effort required to to interject ourselves in unpredictable confrontations happening around us. But c’mon, let’s do the hard thing. We have to, because at the end of the day, it IS our business. 

Community safety is a collaborative goal, one that depends on everybody developing the tools and learning the skills to work together to get there.

We want to feel safe and welcome where we choose to live, day and night. And we’re not looking for an “increase of police presence” in places like George Street to help us feel that safety. 

The police are appointed to uphold public safety, but we cannot rely on them. While we wait for institutional change within the RNC, we must invest more in proactive community-based models, anything from more education and training for the community to know what to do when coming across violence, or how to relate to people in crisis.

A safe community means the people within it have meaningful access to care and resources – and this cannot be found exclusively in policing. A safe community means that there’s a shared understanding that everybody deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. A safe community certainly starts with us – but it also must be supported by leaders who can make sure that they systemically provide the social conditions where safety can thrive and set an example for us all.

Look out for one another out there.

Tania Heath,

Training Innovator

St. John’s Status of Women Council

If you are a woman or non-binary person who has been affected by violence, the St. John’s Women’s Centre is here for you. Call (709) 753-0220 today to learn about the support we can offer.

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