Police officer in London, Ont., apologizes for wearing blackface

A police officer in London, Ont., has apologized for appearing in blackface as part of a “tribal” Halloween costume 11 years ago, an incident the force’s chief called racist and unacceptable.

Const. Katrina Aarts’ actions were the subject of an internal investigation that determined the incident took place in 2006, before she became an officer, Chief John Pare told reporters on Thursday as he also issued an apology for what happened.

Several photos of Aarts with her face painted brown and coils around her neck, which were taken years ago, were posted on her sister’s Instagram account last week, the force said.

In a letter of apology from Aarts that was read out by Pare at a news conference, the officer wrote that she took full responsibility for her actions.

“At the time, I did not recognize the racial implications when choosing this costume,” Aarts wrote in the letter. ”However, sitting here today, I am now forever remorseful for this decision.”

Aarts wrote that she has sought out training on cultural sensitivity and wanted to ensure such an incident didn’t happen again.

“I am putting this out to the community to apologize and explain the efforts I have taken and will take to be an ambassador of change within the London Police Service,” she wrote. “I apologize greatly for any hardship that this has caused London Police Service, as well as any member of the public that has been emotionally effected or offended.”

Pare said the entire incident was taken very seriously.

“I would like to apologize to all Londoners and particularly those in the black community,” he said. ”The photos that were posted to social media of Const. Aarts are clearly offensive and inappropriate.”

All London police employees are receiving training in cultural sensitivity and racial awareness with a focus on the black community, Pare said.

“Racism is not acceptable in any circumstances,” he said. ”Dressing in blackface is not acceptable. It is demeaning and a racist action.”

Pare also said, however, that during her nearly two years with the force, Aarts “has shown herself to be an excellent police officer and highly engaged in the community.”

“She is very remorseful,” he said. “I believe the letter is heartfelt and genuine.”

The photos of Aarts were sent to the mayor’s office in late December and forwarded to the deputy chief, prompting him to call an investigation.

London Mayor Mall Brown also responded to the photos when they surfaced last week.

“This is frustrating, concerning and disappointing. There is no place for racism in London,” he said in a written statement at the time.

Anthony Morgan, a Toronto-based human rights lawyer, commended the force for the apologies, but said police should release more information on who will conduct the cultural sensitivity training.

“Sometimes what I see is police services will engage non-African Canadians to do that work — and not to say that they can’t or they are incapable,” Morgan said, adding that generally the community will see a true commitment for change if they are included in such training.

“I worry about people and the service seeing this incident as divorced from the carding statistics that we see within that region,” he said.

Statistics of carding released by the London Free Press show that in 2014, London police conducted about 8,400 street checks, which was triple the rate of Hamilton and Ottawa. Of those, 7.7 per cent of the people documented were black, who only make up about 2.5 per of the city’s population.

“We know that there are issues of systemic racism, particularly systemic anti-black racism, within this service,” Morgan said. “So, if this issue is not contextualized within broader issues of systemic barriers through inclusion within the service, I think we lose an opportunity to have that service fully live up to its promise.”

Mojdeh Cox, an Ottawa-based a human rights advocate who used to live in London, also said the police need to be more transparent about who conducts this kind of training and how will they track its effectiveness.

“The apology is a good step forward, but the sincerity of it will be based on how they implement and apply what they learned,” she said.

London police did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the training.

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