Black History Month: Dr. Eleanor Gittens

Eleanor Gittens photoDr. Eleanor Gittens
Dr. Eleanor Gittens is a professor at Georgian College in the Police Studies degree program. She helps students confront their biases before they graduate and go on to become police officers – by taking them to Barbados!
About Dr. Eleanor Gittens

The national dish of Barbados is fried flying fish (try saying that six times fast) and cou-cou (a cornmeal-okra concoction) with a spiced gravy. Barbadian cuisine is also known as “Bajan” cuisine, and the fish cakes and fried delights have influenced food all over the globe. As with food, Barbados itself has had an outsized cultural impact compared to its tiny size. Barbados has a population of fewer than 300,000 people.

The town of Barrie, Ontario is, on its own, half the size of Barbados. It counts a little over 150,000 inhabitants, one of whom is Dr. Eleanor Gittens. Dr. Gittens was born in Barbados, and is now a professor at Georgian College in the Police Studies degree program. The key courses she teaches at the moment are in research methods, cyber crime, mental health issues in policing, and contemporary social movements. She says,

“My passion is research. I love to do research with policing agencies – especially if they have a question or concern but are unsure how to go about getting the evidence or the data from what they have already. I can help them answer those questions.”

One of those questions was regarding calls from local long-term care facilities in Orillia. The OPP service in the area approached Dr. Gittens because they were concerned that they were getting too many calls for service from those facilities that didn’t require police presence. Because research opportunities are also teaching opportunities, Dr. Gittens and a few of her students created a research team to examine the issue. They looked at all the calls over a period of time to determine what the evidence showed.

They found that the OPP were correct – that 60-70% of the calls they were getting from long-term care facilities did not require police presence. In many of the cases it was residents calling 9-1-1 directly from their rooms for something trivial like having misplaced their remote. Dr. Gittens and her students presented their findings to both the police service and to the long-term care facilities (and at the CPA Convention that year).

Their recommendations led to changes at both the police service and the care homes themselves. The long-term care organizations made changes to how their residents accessed telephones, and the processes by which staff contacted emergency services. The police changed policies beyond just when to respond, but also altered the way they responded to calls at these facilities to ensure the response was appropriate for the situation.

Most of the students who go through Dr. Gittens classes go on to become police officers. In recent years, a much greater focus has been placed on implicit bias in policing, and the ramifications that result from that implicit bias – most particularly, for communities of colour. Says Dr. Gittens,

“Often, police officers have a view of who the criminals are, and where the criminal activity takes place, based on their own personal biases and the feelings you’ve developed over time from working in the field. One of the things we’re trying to do when it comes to human rights and social justice is to break down some of those biases so that people can start to see things for what they are rather than seeing them through the lens of their bias.”

So how, then, to deconstruct some of that bias before these students graduate and go on to become police officers throughout Canada, serving vastly different communities with very different needs and systemic issues? Dr. Gittens says that although it is impossible to get rid of bias entirely, she figured the best way to move future officers in that direction would be to take her students – who are predominantly white – to a place where they would be the minority, removed from their current social environment. The students are in Orillia, a city with very little diversity. Dr. Gittens is the only Black professor at Georgian College. So where to take those students?

Barbados. She takes them to Barbados.

“Barbados is 95% Black. They get to explore the food, and the culture, and also to tour police stations and the prison. [Yes, there is only one prison in Barbados.] We’ve done a Supreme Court tour, where they got to sit in on a case. They got a chance to see some of the intricacies of how culture plays into peoples’ behaviour, how people think, and also how they are percieved. It’s only one opportunity for them, but I think it’s better than no opportunity at all.”

It’s hard to understand the impact of culture and heritage until you’re smack in the middle of one that is not your own. The students, of course, love these trips.

“Not only does every student love it, it’s one of the things police services are looking for now. When I have to do a reference for students going into policing, one of the questions they ask is ‘what do you know about their views on diversity?’ For the students I take on trips, I can speak to how they behaved during their visit. What set them apart from some of the other students? How did they embrace, for example, the food? There are people who refuse to try new food, simply because they don’t know it or understand it! Fear is an emotion that can really debilitate people.”

Dr. Gittens loves helping her students reach a higher level of cultural competency in her professional life, and loves to travel in her personal life. Unfortunately, the student trips, and her travel, have had to be put on hold to a large degree during the pandemic. One day, these things will be possible again. When they are, Dr. Gittens looks forward to bringing more students to Barbados to experience the culture, the atmosphere, and – of course – the cuisine. One word of advice to anyone who goes.

“Try the fish.”