Why an Archive?
Sexual Assault Voices of Edmonton (SAVE) decided to build the Police Violence Archive as part of our larger Defund the Police campaign based on suggestions from the community. We know that a lot of violence is committed by police forces across Canada, but unlike in the United States, where numerous well-established projects like Mapping Police Violence, El Grito de Sunset Park, and Berkley CopWatch have been tracking police violence for years, we don't have much information about it. There is no official agency in Canada that tracks deaths from police encounters, although CBC's Deadly Force project now collates this information from news reports, but as far as non-fatal encounters go, there's no data at all. We believe that in order to address a problem, you need to understand its scope, and the Archive hopes to start to pull some of the pieces of the puzzle together when it comes to the ways that violence and policing are intertwined in our communities. We hope that by providing information we can empower community activists already doing this work, and give voice and recognition to people who have survived police violence but haven't had a space to speak about their experiences.
What is 'police violence' anyways?
Good question - we're still figuring it out! Some forms of police violence are pretty obvious - murders, use of excessive force, and sexual violence. Others aren't so obvious; for example, many police forces in Canada use a practice nicknamed "starlight tours", picking people up (most often, Indigenous men) on vague pretexts in the downtown areas of cities, and dropping them on the outskirts in the dead of winter, sometimes without their possessions or clothing. That's not a physical attack, but it has claimed the lives of several people in Saskatoon and if someone without police authority did it, it would be kidnapping. Violence can also be psychological or part of a bureaucratic system. The 2017 Globe and Mail report Unfounded discovered that police dismissed 1 in 5 sexual assault claims as baseless, despite consistent research that shows that levels of false reports of sexual violence are the same as for other types of crime, around 2-8%. The way police treat sexual violence reports doesn't only mean they're never investigated or prosecuted - dismissive or blameful treatment from law enforcement can be further traumatizing for survivors and have serious impacts on their lives. And the ways that people of colour are disproportionately targeted and profiled by the police have been found to have serious psychological and social impacts on members of those communities.
So how do we define violence in the Archive? We cast a broad net - if the actions of the police inflict physical, mental, or social harm on a member of our community, we think it's worth examining those actions. After all, police are supposed to be public servants and accountable to the community. That being said, we understand that different forms of violence have different impacts, and actions exist within the broader context of colonialism, racism, ableism, sexism, and homophobia. That's why we use archiving tools like tags and collections to help users sort through the data.
Why Edmonton and area? What does that include?
Well, because we live here! Although we would love to see archives on police violence all across Canada (and everywhere else too), we've started this project in Edmonton because we care about a better vision of safety and accountability for our community. It's also honestly a lot of work, and we had to start somewhere!
The YEG Police Violence Archive includes incidents in Edmonton and the Alberta Capital Region, which includes the counties of Leduc, Strathcona, Parkland, and Sturgeon, and the towns within them. That means most incidents of police violence recorded in the Archive pertain to the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
If police aren't the answer, what is?
Great question. Police abolitionists believe that policing (which is a relatively recent, Western concept) is not an inevitability - it is only one of the many ways that societies throughout human history have chosen to enforce rules. That means that we have the power to choose other ways to keep each other safe and accountable. Black Lives Matter has a great primer on alternatives across different police services, but this is just a starting point. When we think about BLM's call to "invest in community", it's easy to see how the $373 million Edmonton Police Service spent in 2020 could be used to provide housing, mental health supports, harm reduction, and gender equality programs that would target the underlying causes of many issues. You know the saying, "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail"? Well, we think of policing as the hammer, but our problems aren't nails, and we need to stop hitting them.
We don't claim to have all the answers - but we know that together as a society, we can find them. We at the Archive hope that by empowering people working towards police accountability and/or abolition, we can help move closer to that vision.