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Russell Wangersky: Trying to change the system from within


I understand how it happens. In a small way, I’ve been there.

Russell Wangersky

Successive reports on the RCMP have hammered the force for systemic workplace harassment, saying the force isn’t fixing things.

Others suggest it’s a common headspace for many police forces. Leslie Bikos, a former London police officer now studying police forces, wrote in the Globe and Mail this week that, “The culture of policing was originally built on white, traditionally masculine, conservative norms, and is based on hyper-masculinity, loyalty and, above all, silence.”

Former auditor general Sheila Fraser, reviewing workplace harassment in the RCMP, had a stark analysis: “While the RCMP is currently engaged in a conscientious effort to deal with harassment, I am of the view that revised policies and procedures and training will not adequately deal with the problem. It will take a long time to fix and will require a vastly different approach.”

I don’t doubt it.

Why? Because of where it all began.

I’ve never been a rookie police officer, but I have been a rookie firefighter. And while times have hopefully changed for firefighters now, I can tell you that I experienced remarkably, “white, traditionally masculine, conservative norms … based on hyper-masculinity, loyalty and, above all, silence.” And that doesn’t serve anyone.

You’re working completely inside the fire department tent. My role models, and leaders, were exactly that, at least on the outside. They’re training you to fight fires. They’re also training you how to behave and what is and isn’t acceptable. How jokes are possible about the most horrible situations. They show you a rulebook that, outside the department, would horrify the average person.

It doesn’t make it right (no, it’s still horribly, horribly wrong) but new police officers, like the new firefighters I knew years ago, were — and maybe still are —surrounded by it constantly.

If you’re tormented by a senior officer, you shut up and take it. Hazed? Price of admission — if you complain, you’re weak. If you’re wracked with nightmares about violent accident scenes, you shut your mouth and tell no one. They party hard — you party hard. You become more and more alone, or you find a flawed coping strategy like excess, secret drinking or drugs.

It is its own kind of conditioning, and those who kick against the norms find themselves isolated, or, more likely, the scapegoat targets of more harassment.

And it’s destructive, even to those who seem to fit in.

My strong, silent role model in one fire department, after I wrote about my respect for him, let me know about his slide into depression and drug use, alone in all the same doubts and fears that I had. I think it’s far more common than anyone knows.

Adults are the product of their upbringing. Senior officers are products of theirs, as well.

Don’t forget: yesterday’s recruits, dipped and hardened in a very dark pool, are today’s senior officers.

Change can take a long time, unless it’s being hammered away at almost daily.

I think fire departments have come a long, long way — at least, I hope they have. I know many are on their way, among them, both of the fire departments I served with.

Police forces?

From the outside, I can’t help but think that the hostility they often face, plus their experience in high-stress situations, makes an us-or-them, you’re-on-the-team-or-off-it mentality even stronger. I know police officers are united in their belief that people on the outside are not even equipped to understand what it’s like to actually wear those shoes. And I can see why it’s hard to change.

I know how it happens.

The real problem is how, once it’s entrenched, to make it stop.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 30 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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