Toronto cops grudgingly accept sensitivity training

The Toronto police will undergo sensitivity training as part of a lawsuit settlement, but diversity consultants wonder if the training will make a long-term impact without endorsement from the top.

The settlement, announced in December, was the outcome of a $1.5 million class action lawsuit, prompted by a September 2000 raid on a lesbian bathhouse. The raid, which was conducted by five male officers, was deemed by an Ontario Court of Justice judge to be a violation of the Charter rights of the women present, many of whom were partly undressed.

As part of the settlement, the Toronto Police Services Board agreed to pay a group of seven complainants $350,000. As well, all current and future police officers have to undergo gay and lesbian sensitivity training, designed in consultation with the Ontario Human Rights Commission and members of the gay community.

Shortly after the settlement was announced, however, Toronto police chief Julian Fantino said that the Toronto Police Service doesn’t need another sensitivity training program.

“It’s being forced on us,” he told the local newspaper. “We are conscientious about diversity and sensitivity and all those kinds of things. Is it necessary? I think that in many respects this is a duplication of much of the work we already do.”

Pointing to this kind of comment, Trevor Wilson, author of Diversity at Work, said he doubts that the agreed-upon sensitivity training will have lasting impact.

In fact, diversity training that has been imposed on an organization can easily create a backlash.

He cited one example of a Fortune 500 company that rolled out sensitivity training a few years ago, as a response to a $200-million class-action suit over the treatment of racial minorities.

“The consultants who were brought in to do things like sensitivity training, luckily, had taken qualitative and quantitative measurements beforehand. Five years later, they took it again, and in every single metric, the company had gotten worse,” said Wilson.

Diversity training that is not embedded in a system that holds managers and officers accountable is a waste of time and money, said Valerie Pruegger, a University of Calgary psychology adjunct professor who specializes in policing and diversity issues.

“Police services, in my experience, are very good about building the courses but not building them into a system of change. And they are not the only ones,” said Pruegger.

While diversity training has been around for decades, it’s only in recent years that police across Canada are tackling bias based on sexual orientation — one of the hardest issues to address in any community, said Pruegger.

In late 2002, the Calgary police raided a gay bathhouse and upset the community, a move which undid several years of relationship building between the gay community and the police, said Pruegger.

“That’s the key to why you do this kind of awareness training. It’s so you understand the sensitivities around going into places like this. It’s so you at least put out a communiqué as to why you did this.”

To reinforce awareness training, police can begin with something as simple as a form that goes out to crime victims and asks them how they were treated.

“It’s like the issue of how rape victims were treated 25 years ago. The police learned from feedback that the victims were re-victimized. And I don’t think the police have done enough of that kind of customer satisfaction survey, if you will. Just ask people: What was your treatment like?”

A key element of embedding this training is to have people both at the top and at the bottom state clearly that biased, discriminatory behaviour is unacceptable. One exercise Pruegger likes to do with police recruits is to ask them whether they would report a sergeant who used a racial slur or racially harassed someone.

“Everyone of them said, ‘Yes, absolutely. That’s terrible, he can’t do that,’” said Pruegger. “We would go back to them three months later, after they have been on the streets. And their response then would be, ‘Are you kidding? That would be a job-killer.’”

Like Wilson, Pruegger has too often seen a backlash grow when diversity training isn’t endorsed at the top. “We’ve seen sabotage. At the police service, you’ve got different trainers doing different courses, and the trainers for the cool courses will say about the diversity training, ‘Yeah, that stuff’s crap but you’ve got to take it,’” said Pruegger.

“And that has to go but I don’t see how that will happen until every individual in management is held responsible for their actions and the actions of their officers.”

At the Toronto Police Service, training and development manager Chuck Lawrence doesn’t see the chiefs’ comments as undermining the agreed upon sensitivity training. He said the chief has shown support for the issue in other ways, including a mandatory course on diversity and policing introduced seven years ago.

In the big picture, Lawrence said, the Toronto police have made considerable progress in how they deal with various communities. He pointed to the absence of hazing rituals as an example.

“You will get problems with people. Police at the end of the day are the umpire of society, and people don’t like umpires.”

Awareness comes in steps

Drawing on 20 years of delivering diversity consultation work, Trevor Wilson said awareness training is only the first step in tackling discriminatory behaviour. Awareness training may be effective in moving people out of what Wilson calls a state of “unconscious incompetence.”

“These folks don’t know what they don’t know, and a good awareness program can move these people into ‘conscious incompetence,’ which is when they know what they don’t know.”

But the objective of any diversity program should be to move people through two further levels, “conscious competence,” and then “unconscious competence,” a state of mind where inclusive, unbiased behaviour and attitude are thoroughly internalized, said Wilson.

“What’s probably needed are other kinds of intervention beyond training. People need tools to try out over a period of weeks or months.” Examples of such tools would be ways to handle certain issues and processes to address certain situations that managers could try out and grow comfortable with. Over time, such approaches could become second nature.

To read the full story, login below.

Not a subscriber?

Start your subscription today!