Nelson Police Chief Paul Burkart was scrolling through his social media feed last week when he came across the story of Charles Kinsey, an unarmed black care worker shot by police officers in Miami. Though Kinsey was laying on the ground with his arms in the air, attempting to assist an autistic man in distress, the cops still shot him.
“I read that story and I felt a little sick,” Burkart told the Star. “I know even though that’s not my police agency and that’s about as far away from little Nelson as possible, we know that people here are looking at that and wondering ‘what’s going on in our own police department?’”
And though he doesn’t feel the current social climate is quite as divisive in Canada as in the US, he believes it’s important to keep abreast of developments south of the border and feels there’s plenty of conversations to be had surrounding race in the Kootenays.
“These situations, these shootings, they can have implications for my members so I have to make sure I’m doing everything I can to make sure my members are safe…It definitely gets thrown in our face: ‘what’re you gonna do, shoot me?’ People are very aware of what’s going on.”
Lately those sorts of topics have been coming up more and more, according to Burkart. So following the police shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in the US, events that resulted in a targeted shooting that left five police officers dead in Dallas, Burkart decided he wanted to be proactive about involving himself in the conversation and expressing his solidarity with local residents of colour.
He made a point to attend “Let’s talk justice, equality and power,” a dialogue on race at the youth centre Wednesday. But after a discussion with organizers in which they asked him to return in civilian clothes Burkart left, calling it “a missed opportunity.”
And he’s not surprised there have been roadblocks to successful communication. According to him, being a cop in a small town is fraught with these sorts of conflicts.
“There’s not a day when we’re out in the public where people aren’t talking about how we’re driving, how we’re conducting ourselves. We’re being filmed and sworn at and assaulted and there’s only one reason for that: we wear a certain uniform and do a certain job.”
He feels that gives him an empathy for those who face discrimination.
“I’m certainly not going to say I understand what people of colour are going through in their lives but parts of it I certainly do, the ways they’re being marginalized. I’ve been eating breakfast in uniform and people will approach me and say ‘hey, I’m paying your taxes, shouldn’t you be out in the street?
“We stand out. It’s not about the colour of our skin, it’s about our uniforms and the vehicles we drive.”
And the discrimination they face can have violent repercussions.
“I do find it upsetting that my members and police in general are being painted with the same brush because of incidents occurring some other place in situations we have nothing to do with.”
All to say that he understands why some people would be uncomfortable with his presence at the youth centre event last week, and he didn’t want to get in the way.
“It wasn’t an easy thing to do, making that request,” organizer Stephanie Meitz, adding that she was thrilled Burkart made the effort. “But I do feel that for people to speak openly and freely about their oppressive experience, it’s important for them to feel safe.”
And having him there, with a gun on his hip, was uncomfortable for some. They asked him to return in civilian clothes.
“He was kind of put off by our request, and maybe that’s fair. Maybe it hasn’t been requested of him before. But he said ‘no problem’ and he was polite and gave us his contact information.”
Burkart said the main issue was that he was on duty, and therefore could’ve been called into action during the meeting. He prides himself on his department’s response time, and cited the successful arrest of bank robber Andrew Stevenson as an example of a time his preparedness was key.
“We have to be ready to respond at any time,” he said.
Meitz thinks this situation demonstrates “that he should be here, so we can have these discussions.”
“It was really great he did come and we’d like for him to join us in civilian clothes so we can further engage in this dialogue.”
“At some point I’d be happy to join in that conversation because I think I have some important things to add. I want to be part of this conversation.”
He’s sad he missed out on hearing community member’s stories.
“I think I might’ve added just as much if not more to the conversation, because I have my stories as well.”