Statistics Canada, (2012)
Royal Canadian Mounted Police, (2012); Government of Saskatchewan, (2012)
Municipal Police Officers
Total Number of Officers
Statistics Canada, (2012); Burczycka, (2012)
Permission to conduct research with police was secured through police leadership. This body facilitated access to police stations based on criteria provided by the researcher to include a cross-section of police offices including: rural, small, medium and urban settings. A total of eight locations were visited and 34 interviews were conducted with frontline police in these locations. Interviews were conducted on site in a private location. Although each officer was on shift, and a frontline worker, all 34 interviews were completed in one sitting. All officers were consented, and interviews were recorded. A semi-structured interview guide was used to collect comparable data. The average interview time was approximately 15 min.
Regarding the demographics of the interviewees: all officers were classified as frontline staff and had 9.2 average years of service. Most officers were seasoned and our sample included officers with over 25 years of experience, and rookies who did the interview during their first day on the job. Most interviewees were men, which is reflective of the overall demographic in the profession. Burczycka (2012) reported that upwards of 80 % of Canadian police officers are men. Most of our interviewees were from Saskatchewan but some did have experience policing in other locations in Canada.
The following section will discuss key findings of the research as it relates to the legal and ethical issues surrounding FASD to include: (1) an overview of the baseline knowledge officers have of FASD along with their perceptions surrounding prevalence, (2) stigma and the negative connotation officers have of FASD, and (3) discussion about the need for dedicated FASD training and specific ideas officers have about training.
Officer Knowledge and Prevalence of FASD
Prior to conducting interviews we were cautioned that frontline police might have little knowledge of FASD. However, our interviews revealed that most officers had a baseline understanding of FASD. Most officers could describe elements of the condition including: FASD is the result of maternal drinking, impacts are life-long and can including cognitive challenges. During the course of the interviews, we came to find out that many officers did not recall elaborate formal training on FASD, but rather acquired much of their understandings from “hands on” experiences and/or discussion with fellow officers. We were often told about informal exchanges after an incident with a client or casual conversations. One officer commented that “anything you come across with this, you kind of share, over a coffee or conversation.” It is good that there is active discussion about FASD in the police office but the accuracy of this type of information exchange is unknown. Moreover, some officers see a value in their collective experience over formal training. When asked how information about FASD is transferred to officers one interviewee responded:
I mean we’re all doing the same job so we all see the same thing and just through observation when we’re on calls together, or just talking amongst each other. There’s not a whole lot of scholastic conversation about FASD.
This officer highlights the suspicion many expressed when they discussed training. Namely that there was a presumption that a “scholastic conversation” would take place—here a scholastic conversation marks training that is academic and divorced from the realities of frontline work.
Most officers expressed faith in “hands on” experiences. For example, one interviewee commented that limited information was transferred to officers about FASD but that this was not really a concern because, “it’s basically the people we deal with regularly or we know their issues.” This comment is encouraging in one respect in that the officers are getting to know their clients and trying to best understand their “issues.” However, in the absence of formal training, police are not in a position to best understand these clients’ “issues” since FASD is experienced on a spectrum, and therefore “issues” are often changing. Therefore the “issues” for one person with FASD can be numerous and divergent.
Despite different levels of understanding about FASD, there was one thing that many officers seemed to agree on: FASD was a consideration in their daily frontline police work. Most also agreed that individuals with FASD required patience on the part of the officer because these clients do not process information in the same way which can be frustrating for police. It should be noted that many officers were compassionate about clients with FASD. When asked the advice they would give to fellow officers working with a client, the constant refrain was: patience. One officer outlines the experience of working with clients thusly:
I think we need to be aware of it, and considering it in our investigations, we get… I guess, I don’t know which word, maybe [be] empathetic towards it and try to understand it more so we don’t lose our patience or don’t forget about it and then not understand why someone is the way they are or fault them for it I guess – it’s not their fault of their own I guess.
This officer’s choice to use the language of empathy highlights the experience of working with clients that do not understand the frontline encounter. The officer’s comment was echoed by other justice professionals we would later interview who expressed exasperation when discussing the ways their clients would misunderstand expectations when they were embroiled in the legal system with outcomes that could include: violations of probation, jail time, and/or loss of custody of their children.
The challenge of the frontline experience is that much more alarming if one considers the perceived prevalence of FASD relative to training. One officer commented, “I think a majority of our clients suffer from FASD whether they know it or they don’t.”
Stigma and Negative Connotations
Most officers could recall working with a client that they believed to have FASD and/or had disclosed that they had FASD. However, for many officers, FASD raised suspicion or concern as officers regularly reminded us that FASD could not be a “get out of jail free card.” This level of suspicion about the condition may be a result of ongoing, sustained contact with clients that are challenging to work with. However, it is also reflective of the stereotypes and misunderstandings surrounding FASD. That being said, some officers were aware of the stigma surrounding the condition and the challenge the stigma can present to an individual:
Officer: They don’t understand—it has a terrible stereotype.
Officer: Yeah it’s terrible, so…. I don’t know how they’re supposed to feel about saying they are diagnosed with it and I don’t understand the disease enough to know if they understand what that diagnosis means.
This officer’s comment shed light on the nuanced experience of frontline encounters in which some police are aware of the potential stigma that FASD can carry, and the stereotypes that can result from that stigma. Here, the officer is also raising the compounded challenge: a person with FASD can experience stigma because of the diagnosis, which then raises concern about how much this person understands their diagnosis and the potential associated stigma when they are diagnosed.
During one interview, an officer was particularly candid. After stating that there was little to no training on the topic, they continued:
You get terms thrown around and that kind of stuff. Like I said a lot of the time we deal with the same people. You tend to get the understanding or belief that they are suffering from FASD and it becomes very negative. Oh that “FASD bastard” or whatever. In that kind of sense, it’s never a positive reflection or a beneficial discussion about it.
These negative understandings of FASD are framed here as a result of ongoing contact. And from that negative contact, and perhaps frequent contact, the discussions about FASD that follow are “never a positive reflection.” In the absence of formal training and in light of ongoing and sustained contact with troubled clients, police are left to navigate the terrain of a brain injury with limited resources. An officer with eight years experience, when asked about training stated matter-of-factly, “there really hasn’t been anything. We haven’t received any new training, we haven’t received any refresher training.”
When asked what resources would best assist them in their frontline work, most officers answered education and/or training. Officers were quick to caution against so-called scholastic discussions of FASD and indicated an interest in a “non-clinical explanation … of what to expect” when they encountered someone with FASD. Officers expressed a need for training that would be applicable in frontline encounters and were quite detailed in the type of training they believed would be most effective. In what follows, I will offer an overview of the suggestions made by officers. I offer these suggestions in part because they represent what officers believe will be helpful at the frontline.
In speaking with officers about resources they thought would be most useful at the front-line, the majority answered that education was crucial. Unfortunately, some felt that the obligation fell on the individual. One officer commented:
educate yourself. Unfortunately we don’t receive nearly enough of it…and its not just FASD it is other mental issues that we deal with that we don’t have virtually any training in. But specifically with FASD we need to take it upon ourselves to educate ourselves because unfortunately we don’t receive it from anywhere else.
It was clear that self-education and informal networks were the primary mechanism of information. It should be noted that a few officers did mention online training requirements. Officers rejected this form of training as it is often done in conjunction with their expected regular police work. This could result in a two-window approach whereby officers would complete police work in one window screen and “participate” in a training session in the other window. This type of Internet based training was deemed ineffective. One officer commented “95 % of us cheat.”
There were alternatives to mandatory online training and self-education by “googling it.” Some officers commented that a brochure or handouts would be helpful, as it could be something they could put in their duffle bags. However, one officer was quick to point out the limited value of brochures:
Everything we’re given gets thrown in the bag. We got enough stuff on our belt when we walk down the street. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not going to pull out the brochure when I am talking with someone. But if we get that training in the classroom, with the live scenarios, where we are actually in a controlled situation…with professional people that do the acting and so we deal with mental health scenarios and armed robbery scenarios all that kind of stuff and that’s how cops learn….if you give us something where its hands-on and you force us to think about it that’ll come back in our training. Our motto is you are only as good as your training. How you act in your training is how you will act on the street.
This officer believes that a practice-based, “hands on” approach will have the most impact. One might further extrapolate that if a police agency takes the time to create a scenario-based model the participating trainees will see that the issue is understood to have some importance in the area.
Some officers expressed an interest in training that would be conducted off-site (for example at the police college). However, the time and resources available to agencies makes it quite challenging to send officers “away” for training aside from annual certifications. For local training, some officers expressed concern about the role of experts coming into the police station (without a background in policing) alongside the challenge of permeating all sections of the police force through short briefings held in the police station. Moreover, officers cautioned about bringing in outside “experts” to discuss FASD as front-line officers can quickly discredit them because these experts do not understand frontline police work. Some shared stories of advocates coming to the police station and having unrealistic expectations of what police can do at the frontline and/or naive understandings of what front-line work entails. Officers were quick to remind the research team that they are neither doctors nor social workers and, as such, they need information and strategies appropriate for police not highly medicalized descriptions. A key example of this would be to pay less attention to the language and medical elements of the cognitive disability and place the emphasis on the potential behaviours it can produce. With behaviors in mind, officers can imagine scenarios, or draw on previous experiences, and rethink the encounter if they understand a particular behavior is related to a disability rather than evidence of being openly defiant or aggressive.
It is important to identify when front-line police officers make pointed arguments about how to effectively deliver material and ways to ensure that material permeates the front-line. One officer we interviewed enthusiastically endorsed partnered training in which a representative from the community or community-based organization would present material with another police officer. Here the collaboration between that officer and the community member might assist with getting front-line officers to engage with the session. Others suggested the possibility of having someone with FASD speak to the police as part of a simple Question and Answer session. This raises many concerns for advocates as a so-called high-functioning individual with FASD could give police a misconception about FASD and how it is experienced on a spectrum. Although police had many great ideas there is a need to balance them out with realistic approaches that will help further understanding about FASD without accidentally doing a disservice to those living with FASD who do encounter the justice system. In the section that follows, I will draw on officer’s ideas for training practices that could allow for effective knowledge mobilization that balances out the potential negative impacts of the proposed idea.