On March 21, 2023, chief of police Danny Smyth released a commentary on the Winnipeg Police Substack critiquing the methodology and subsequent conclusions of a publicly funded report about the Student Resource Officer (SRO) program in the Louis Riel School Division (LRSD). The severely redacted report, An Equity-Based Review of Police Involvement in Schools: The School Resource Officer Program, was only released by LRSD on March 17, 2023 after an ongoing dispute following its completion in 2021 and a decision from the Provincial Ombudsman. Smyth’s principal argument is that the report, authored by Fadi Ennab, is biased, indicating his position that a “police abolitionist” should never have been commissioned to lead the evaluation of the SRO program. However, the very concerns that Smyth raised about the legitimacy of the report and its findings can be discredited with basic knowledge of social science methodology.
Smyth’s commentary is a thinly veiled attempt to silence the voices of those who expose the systemic racism and violence of policing, disguised through specious and unscientific critiques of the report’s research methodology.
First, Smyth tries to discret Ennab’s conclusions in the report by insinuating that he only selected participants “that fit his criteria” and would therefore advance this agenda. The criteria in question is that students had to be from an “equity-seeking group” (e.g. Indigenous or Black) and were involved with the SRO program in LRSD. Focusing on equity is considered a best practice by the largest school divisions in this country, all of which are noted in Ennab’s report. In addition, participants were selected by and through LRSD, not the researcher himself.
The second issue identified is that the “small number” of interviews that Ennab conducted, as Smyth views it, could not possibly be representative of 33,000 students that attend schools in the LRSD. However, Ennab’s report never claimed to be generalizable. Qualitative interviews are not intended to capture some imagined universal experience, nor do they create general rules. The very premise of qualitative interviews involving underrepresented groups is to offer an in-depth account of the experiences of a relatively small sample of people, and to make sense of these experiences within the broader social context and power relations.
In this case, Ennab used interviews to gather the experiences of students, specifically centring the experiences of students who are Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC) as part of his equity-based methodological framework, to identify experiences of harm among these underrepresented and marginalized communities. He then made sense of these findings as per standard qualitative analysis to offer conclusions that are consistent with the voices of participants. To complement interview findings, Ennab also considered survey responses from over 3000 participants in the LRSD, which Smyth seemed to ignore. Even if there was indeed a “small sample” population for this research, it is important to recognize that one student harmed is too many.
Accusing Ennab of excluding “two students” is also blatantly incorrect. If Smyth had read more carefully, Ennab clearly states that he excluded the findings of one student who did not fit the research criteria: this student did not identify with an equity-group and did not have any direct experiences with an SRO. Including this participant would not make sense within the scope of this research. The findings of another student was also removed from the sample because one of the students’ parents is a member of the WPS, and including this student’s responses would have the potential to bias the results because of the direct association to policing; Ennab’s methodological decisions were attempts to respond to and alleviate bias - not the other way around.
Another striking issue is that Smyth conveniently leaves out the fact that Ennab’s research for LRSD also attempted to interview the WPS, but the WPS declined a request to be interviewed. Smyth’s complaints are clearly a result of dissatisfaction with the results, not with the process.
Finally, the overarching argument that Smyth advances is that the research into SROs should never have been led by someone who is critical of policing, as this may simply advance the author’s “predetermined” conclusions. However, the commissioning of “independent” or “third-party” sources to conduct evaluations has never been an objective process, because research cannot be completely separate from the positionality, values, and interests of both the researcher and the organization who commissioned it. This is why it is important to consider not just the identity, relations, and values of the researcher, but also the institutions involved.
Smyth cites various reports that reviewed SRO programs in Winnipeg schools dating back as early as 2005 to offer examples that oppose Ennab’s negative findings. However, many of these reports are not publicly available, less submitting a FIPPA request and hoping that they too are not severely redacted. Moreover, the one publicly available report that Smyth references did not even offer uniformly positive reviews of SROs, especially by students. The findings of a survey of 954 students during the third-year of the SRO program in North End schools indicated that a mere 1% of students thought that SROs were in the school to “help out/make people feel safe.” Over the three-year period, students were less likely to believe that having SROs in schools was something “positive.”
Further, while Smyth attempts to discredit Ennab’s findings by raising the issue of researcher bias, some of the alternative reports that Smyth cited were commissioned by and for the WPS. In the case of the two reports led by Kaplan Research Evaluation, the Winnipeg Police Service is listed as the client, not the school divisions themselves. What this means is that the school divisions did not commission this research, nor did they select the third-party research firm; this was the decision of the WPS, and done in the interests of the WPS. When Smyth raises concerns about Ennab leading the report, he is condemning school boards’ authority to select who evaluates its own programs.
Claims to “objectivity” in research has long been demystified, and which can be credited in large part to the interventions of feminist research methodologies. Qualitative research, by its very nature, does not claim nor strive to be objective. Qualitative research, such as the interviews and analysis that Ennab conducted for his 2021 report, is inherently aware of and attends to the researcher’s position throughout the research process. This is not to suggest that the researcher’s conclusions are “predetermined,” as Smyth suggests. The conclusions put forth in the report are indeed premised on empirical findings - which, in this case, are the experiences and perspectives of students.
Police chief Danny Smyth’s criticism of LRSD’s choice to commission Ennab to conduct the evaluation of its SRO program is merely a reaction to a perceived loss of power; it is a clear attempt to continue controlling the narrative around policing.
In this case, Smyth’s attempt to delegitimize the report and the author is an attack on the autonomous and consenting young BIPOC students who chose to speak out against SROs. In addition, his decision to publicly identify and ridicule the author of the report, who is also a parent and minority community member, is a shameful intimidation and harassment tactic. Beyond this blatant personal attack, others have pointed out that the WPS’s use of the online blogging platform “Substack” is a strategic attempt to silence police criticism, especially around police violence and murders, in order to build public “trust” in police.
To Smyth’s discontent, the 2021 report is empirical evidence of the harms of police powers and expansion in schools. It makes several key findings, and recommendations, which include ending police involvement in schools, defunding the SRO program to reinvest in social supports, accountability measures for police involvement in schools, anti-racism training, and further data collection.
At the same time, the report itself is riddled with redactions; the content of which is largely block quotes directly from participants. But why would the LRSD remove participants’ voices from the report? Likely because it included devastating evidence of shameful police conduct that would be harmful to LRSD. In fact, the seriousness of these findings led to the cancellation of the SRO program in LRSD, in addition to several other measures taken by the division. Below is a recap of the results and recommendations that made it into the final report:
1. End police involvement in schools
A safe and secure environment is a prerequisite for learning. Feelings of insecurity among BIPOC students from police presence will have a disproportionately negative effect on their ability to learn.
2. Defund SRO program and reinvest in social supports for equity groups
Many of the participants wanted the SRO program to end and for the funds to be reinvested in social support. Instead of investing in policing, investments can be made into social and educational alternatives that promote the safety and well being of all students, especially for equity-seeking groups. Participants suggested that resources should go towards supporting students and families.
3. Create accountability measures for police involvement in schools
Beyond the SRO program, “recent reviews of SRO programs have recommended limiting or eliminating any police involvement in schools”. A clear policy on police in schools should be created to create consistency and reduce bias about when and if police become involved.
4. Anti-racism training for school staff
All school staff, especially administrators, are recommended to receive ongoing and thorough anti-racism training. De-escalation training and restorative practices could also reduce recourse to police involvement. However, training must be supported with recruiting and retaining racialized staff.
5. Collect data on all police involvement in schools
Currently, the LRSD does not collect information on police involvement in schools. This data is only collected, and therefore controlled, by the WPS. SRO placements can “potentially result in unfair searches and seizures, and unlawful distribution of personal and confidential information. The placing of SROs in schools can harm student rights and further contribute to the school to prison pipeline.” Greater transparency, and consistent race-based data is needed. School divisions should be more intentional and accountable about addressing equity in schools.
The conclusions raised in the report is less a reflection of the researcher’s anti-police perspective, as Smyth would like the public to believe, than a microcosm of a broader social critique of policing and police infiltration of our public institutions.
Smyth’s reactive response to the report is part of a long pattern of police rejecting any suggestions for reform or change that challenges their scope of power, organizational objectives and functioning, and perhaps most importantly their budget; in other words, the only police reforms implemented are those that maintain the oppressive status quo. Instead of listening to community demands for accountability and defunding, police constantly lie, gaslight, and double down on so-called “security” measures which create harm and do nothing to address real safety.
In Winnipeg, we have seen this securitization expand through a wildly inflated police budget and their constant expansion of the violence of policing into many public spaces and life-sustaining services, including schools, the downtown Millennium Library, public transit, and grocery stores. While some people (mostly white, affluent, suburban residents) associate police presence in such spaces with safety and comfort, it dramatically reduces safety for BIPOC, the poor, disabled, and queer and trans people. Even in circumstances where harm has occurred, policing does not address the conditions that led to the crisis but instead displaces them elsewhere — often into jails and prisons — where they remain unresolved and oftentimes worsen. While safety in public spaces is an understandable and worthwhile goal, policing does nothing to advance it. In fact, policing is damaging for marginalized communities and the freedom of speech.
There are many struggles happening in the city against police in schools and other public spaces. The calls listed above echo and strengthen various voices raised throughout Winnipeg in favour of defunding the police and redistributing resources into the hands of community.
Organizations such as Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg, Police Free Schools, and the Police Accountability Coalition (which consists of over 100 community organizations in Winnipeg) have all demanded a reduction in police funding in favour of community-based alternatives. They have also demanded the permanent removal of SROs from schools.
Other groups, including Millennium for All, have long fought to undo the re-introduction of police and security measures at Millennium Library knowing that this cannot prevent harm, just displace it elsewhere while at the same time giving more money to police to be glorified door greeters. Due to the expansion of security in public spaces, Indigenous people have repeatedly gone public about incidents of racial profiling by police and security in grocery stores and other retailers.
It’s abundantly clear that the WPS see schools as an vital site of struggle for their continued ideological legitimation and budget increases. In fact, “school engagement” by the WPS increased by 46 percent in 2021, the same year that Winnipeg School Division and Louis Riel School Division formally ended their SRO programs, making it the third highest “police-initiated event.” This suggests that the police have intensified their mission to spread copaganda to young students in response to the ending of SRO programs - all done in an attempt to legitimize the violent institution of policing, and maintain its institutional power and funding. In response, we must learn from Ennab’s report — as well as the public police reaction to it — and support the organizations, parents, and educational workers that are fighting to permanently remove police from schools.