Charles Kissi isn’t 40 years old yet but has a resumé that would be fulfilling for someone approaching retirement age.
He’s at the forefront of a flourishing generation of Canadian coaching talent that’s being noticed as Canada’s presence in the NBA and international basketball continues to gain traction. He just completed his second season on the bench with Raptors 905 as assistant to Jama Mahlalela and is poised to start his second season as the general manager and head coach of the Guelph Nighthawks of the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL).
After starting out coaching in the club system with the Scarborough Blues and then leading the women’s team at Ryerson University, Kissi, 39, became the head coach for the Brock Badgers. Over five seasons he lifted the program from four wins prior to his arrival to a 21-3 record and a fifth-place finish at the 2018 national championships before stepping down to join the 905. Oh, and while at Brock he found the time to complete a master’s degree in education and leadership.
Got all that?
But in some ways, it was what he did before coaching and his life experiences leading up to it that resonate even more deeply, given our times.
After playing at McMaster University, the former standout at Jarvis Collegiate in downtown Toronto – not far from where he grew up in Regent Park, a community housing project where he, the son of immigrants from Ghana, was raised along with four brothers and two sisters – Kissi joined the Toronto Police Service. He started as a 22-year-old and stayed on for a decade, working on patrol in 42 Division in Scarborough and worked in the criminal investigation bureau, major crime unit and as a school resource officer.
Now, with the relationship between police and the Black community under intense scrutiny and questions about systemic racism permeating all spheres, Kissi has started a podcast – Just Think About It — that hopes to examine the issues from multiple angles.
Kissi spoke with me at length about his background, his thoughts on policing and minority communities and what his next challenge might be.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and continuity.
I have known you mostly as a basketball coach and before that as one of the best players in our men’s league, but your first career was in policing. What prompted you to join the Toronto Police Service?
I think for me getting into it was really about change. Trying to change perceptions, trying to work from within to change police ideas. Growing up in Regent Park — a place where lots of people, especially Black people – didn’t have any level of respect for the police, it was about trying to impart changes to the system and trying to be part of the solution and not so much part of the problem.
When did you become aware of or develop an understanding of tensions between the police and the Black community?
I was maybe 11 and I remember seeing [the Rodney King video] over and over again. At that point you’re trying to make sense of it, but this is all the stuff that my parents – especially my dad being a Black male – talked to us about [regarding interacting with police and authority figures]. He talked about how important it was to be respectful, how you don’t want people to get the wrong impression. He used to make us tuck in our shirts and try to really appear to be prim and proper so that people didn’t judge you the wrong way.
Now I wear track pants all day, so it’s funny, but those are those are real issues and real things that people are still talking to the kids about: How they’re dressed and why they’re dressed this way and doing their best not to be judged. We’re always trying to – as my parents were as Black parents – circumvent the system to avoid being trapped in it, if you will. …
The reality is you’re going to be judged by the system based on how you look, there are no ifs ands or buts; you’re going to be judged by your teachers based on how you look; you’re going to get judged by doctors based on how you look; you’re going to be judged by judges, by lawyers. When you walk into the courtroom they tell you to wear a suit. Why is that? Why can’t you just wear what you were wearing on the street? You’re the same person.
But that’s a part of what I believe is this sort of systemic issue.
Did joining the police feel like a natural decision, given your background?
For sure there were people, friends, that resented me for doing it – it’s funny because a lot of people resented me early on for doing it and then came to understand why I was doing it later.
But I was the youngest of my brothers and they all supported it at home and that was what was important first. They encouraged me to go out and try to try to be different, try to make change, don’t go in and be the same as everyone else.
Did you have some negative experiences with the police growing up?
It didn’t happen when I was growing up, it happened when I was a policing! As a police officer I got pulled over one day by someone who thought my car was stolen because it was registered to the police station.
But I remember being a teenager and being in Goderich, [Ont., a resort community near Georgian Bay] with a group of friends and we must have gotten pulled over like three times within a five-minute span. We hadn’t even made it far enough to get pulled over again.
We were actually working at camp with a correctional officer at a camp giving outdoor experiences and bringing kids to different environments, that type of thing. My group of friends – a Korean guy, a Somalian guy – we went out one night and the cops were on us. I could never forget it, but that exists. It’s everywhere.
I saw it with police, I saw it in schools with my teachers who had opinions and things to say to me were different than others and treated me differently, that told me, “University is not for you.” That type of thing. I got a lot of that. I didn’t just see it with the police, I saw it everywhere.
Is policing a major part of that problem? Absolutely, but I’m just not willing to sit here and pretend like the rest of the system is any better.
What were your early years as an officer like?
I started at 22 so I was pretty young. It’s one of those things where you’re constantly conflicted – not constantly – but I think early on because you’re trying to figure out how it works and what really goes on.
Like anything you don’t know until you’re in it, it’s easy to look from the outside and judge it – and I think that is also important, by the way, to have that external level of accountability especially in a profession where you have the ability to take people’s rights away – but I think for me early on it was trying to figure it out.
What is this really about? How does it operate?
You’re hearing people’s opinions and thoughts and how people talk but you have to figure that out for yourself and you’re trying to navigate your own career at the same time.
How long did it take to feel comfortable to speak about things you thought weren’t right?
You’re trying to navigate the first few years and then you kind of get to a place where it was kind of comfortable that if something was not right to say so.
I think it’s a hard thing, [but] listen there’s a lot of officers – Black and white – who encouraged that, who encouraged you to say, “Hey listen, sometimes you need to speak out.”
But for me, you had to get to a point where you understood it enough to speak about it because it’s not the same when your opinion is just completely uninformed. We have to educate ourselves and what’s really happening to really be able to provide an informed opinion and be broad and open about what the issues actually are.
What were your first impressions? Were things better or worse than you thought?
In different ways, both. I worked with some great people and I also saw some other things where I was like, “That’s not right.” So at the end of the day, both.
I came in at a time  where there was a concerted effort, I think, to make the service a little younger and broadening it in terms of diversity and education. I don’t know how much before me it started, but you know that was alive. At least on the shift I was on everyone was pretty much young, welcoming and in the same boat trying to figure things out and maybe that surprised me a little bit, how open people were, initially. It wasn’t that I didn’t expect it, but you don’t know what to expect. You’re so used to being the only Black guy in the room and you just don’t know what to expect, especially in that dynamic where you’re now going to have to police a diverse community.
And on the other side there were moments where you saw or heard some things that were just like, “Wow, wow.” And you had to process some of those moments as an officer and as a human being. I didn’t have a lot of those moments, but I know other people did … I know people who had way different experiences than I did and maybe I would have if I was in a different division or a different place. It’s possible, but I don’t know.
So I go back to say in the first few years of my career I saw it all. I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly of the system. We continue to restate the obvious: There are racist police officers, 100 per cent there are and they need to be found and fired. But there are racist teachers and there are racist lawyers, too. It’s not one thing.
So you’re saying the issues that surface in cases of police brutality are rooted long before what happens in the moment?
I’m lucky enough to have been educated through my master’s degree and my life and experiences and all the different hats that I’ve worn to see that. To see that the teacher who expelled the kid or the teacher who sends the kid to the office in the first place instead of addressing whatever the issues are instead of seeing who that kid actually is, gets supported by the principal, who gets supported by the superintendent.
It’s a perpetual system that gets validated by the curriculum because the kid is bored. Maybe the kid needs to learn more about themselves? Maybe we need to start teaching differently about different things?
I was bored as [expletive] when I was in school because I don’t want to read Romeo and Juliet. I have no interest in that because it doesn’t tell me anything about anything that has anything to do with me.
I remember fighting to read a book that was relevant to me and finally they said “OK, go pick a book that you are interested in.”
I ran through it because I could identify with it and it was more interesting to me and it was more relevant to me and my circumstance in life.
Were you able to be yourself as a police officer, or did you have to hold back on some things?
I was lucky to have leaders that were open and progressive. They gave me the freedom to speak. I never felt like, “If I say that I’m not gonna get that job.” … I was always sort of pushed to be feel confident to share your thoughts.
Now, some people probably didn’t agree with [my opinion] but I was saying it anyway. At the end of the day I’ve always felt confident enough in those situations to tell people what I thought and not worry about it. I believe in myself and, [expletive] it, I’ll just get another job if this is if this is how it’s going to be. If I can’t share my thoughts then this isn’t going to work for me anyway.
But my mandate [with the police service] was to try to impact lives and change people’s perspectives. People needed help. People needed to see me and see that being Black and being an officer was a thing, that they could co-exist, and that I’m a normal human being. I have biases and views and opinions and I don’t need to be the chief to share my thoughts.
And listen, not everybody thought that way. Not every Black officer felt that way and I know that for a fact, but on my end, I just didn’t give a [expletive] because, ultimately, I was comfortable. My parents, my brothers, my sister sort of put that in me, to be comfortable in your own skin.
My brother used to say, “Walk into every room as if you belong there, having a very conscious understanding that people are going to feel like you don’t belong there.”
Did that get tested early on?
I remember Day 1 and the only minorities were myself and another guy, of course you’re aware of that, that you have to find a way to be accepted in the group because these people are going to protect you and you’re going to rely on them to make sure you go home every night so you have to figure out how to break down those barriers.
How did you do break down those barriers?
Talk to them. I don’t need a master’s degree to tell you that. Talk to people, get to know people. I think once we start building human connection it changes everything. It’s the human connection that I was trying to build, the same thing I do with players. I’m not trying to build player-coach relationship. I’m trying to build human connections.
And that was how I sort of navigated all my situations. If you just see each other as competitors or as nemeses well, that’s part the problem.
If [a police officer] doesn’t see George Floyd as a human then you will take his life. If you converse with him, talk to him, get to know him it has the ability to change everything. … That’s what people are in the streets about. They’re tired of people not listening. That’s the one thing we’ve been hearing. We want people to listen.
[But] in order to listen you’ve got to have a conversation, you’ve got to be at that point when we’re talking to each other. And for me it was about having conversations with people, getting to know who these people are and them getting to know who I am, right? …
I just did what I had to do. I didn’t worry so much about what the [other] officers thought or what the Black officers thought. I didn’t worry about that.
I’ve told the story of this one [officer] and we would talk back and forth every day. I never worked with him but he was always on the other end of shift with me early in my career. He was a white guy from up north and he had never interacted really with Black people. He said that, “My perception of Black people is what I saw on T.V.”
This is a police officer working in the one of the most diverse communities in the city and everywhere he’d lived and gone to school was homogenous, and now he’s being thrown into a situation where he’s having to police with all of these biases and not understanding his own biases.
So we’re talking on a daily basis and he’s saying to me, “This is important. I’m glad I got to talk. If not for you, I don’t really have any Black friends, I don’t talk to anybody else. I don’t know why, but I know I feel this way and I know it’s not OK.”
And I commend him for being brave enough to admit that. How powerful is that?
So we would talk and share thoughts and maybe that makes him a better officer. But we all need to be doing those types of things and that’s part of the reason why I joined the job. So that guy from who came from whatever community that was insulated or segregated in different ways – that person needs exposure and needs conversation and needs to start understanding what it’s like on the other side.
Not that he needs to be walking in other people’s shoes, but he needs to start understanding that there are people that he could oppress, so you have to get to understand them, because you may not be understanding how your actions are impacting them; how your actions are tearing generations down and continuing to perpetuate the system that has been in place forever.
The system is not broken, it was designed that way. So how do we start changing it? And how I did it is just a simple conversation. Start talking to people; start getting to know where they stand.
Where do you believe the solutions start?
Unfortunately, I have arrested a lot of minorities but I never once felt like I was targeting a guy. If I didn’t have evidence I wasn’t acting, but what you can never deal with is how they got into these situations, and that’s frustrating.
So when people talk about defunding the police, [maybe] there are areas where a basketball program or a financial literacy opportunity or something like that might help that community, might enlighten two or three kids and help them change others and sometimes we overlook that. …
I don’t know what the solutions are but force isn’t the only one. Do we eradicate the police? I’m not on that side of the fence, but when people talk about defunding the police maybe we have mental health crisis units and they don’t have to armed police officers to do it.
You can’t have only white people policing in Black communities. I’m not a rocket science but I’m smart enough to know that that’s not gonna work. You need your police to reflect the communities that they serve in and it doesn’t mean that they can’t have white police officers, it means they need to have a balance.
I say the same thing with teachers. At my daughter’s school there’s little-to-no diversity from the educators – not the students. To me, that’s a problem. You’re telling me you can’t find any Black teachers or brown teachers? Like they don’t exist? Of course they exist. And it’s on the administrators to make that happen, to make that a priority and to make sure that so when my daughter goes to class – and let me say she’s had some wonderful teachers – it’s important that she sees teachers that look like her so that she can say, “That’s normal. That’s something I can do.” …
So I don’t know exactly what the answers are but I think hiring is one, I think education is one. But what are our policies and what are our actionable items? I keep getting pissed off the more I see these blanket statements – “I think racism is bad.” It just drives me nuts. I get angered by that. What are your policies, your practices to change that? What are your actionable items?
That’s why it’s important we start calling it out and [people] stop saying that we’re being sensitive as Black men or Black people. We’re not being sensitive, we’re tired of people being insensitive to us; we’re tired of people being oppressed in different ways. …
The system is not about one arm, it’s about all of the arms working together. When you’re in education and [Black kids] are being funneled out and suspended at higher rates than the rest and being expelled and basically having barrier after barrier after barrier put in front of them it impacts how they then interact with the other parts of the system, it impacts how they interact with the police, it impacts all of the other areas and arms that oppress them. It does. Everybody’s working in the same system that does the same thing at the end of the day for that Black youth.
And to me the worst of it that we’re seeing is the police oppression and brutality, which is 100 per cent wrong.
When I see someone put his hands in his pockets while he kneels on a guy’s neck it doesn’t just scream, “Hey, we’re the police, we’re above the law,” it also yells out, “We’re the police, we can get away with this because the district attorney is going to support it, because the judge is going to support it and because the rules supported it.”
That’s what it tells me because, look at it this way, when officers get acquitted, they don’t acquit themselves.
Did you ever find yourself in a situation where a fellow officer was out of bounds?
Not to that degree [in reference to Floyd’s murder], but I’ll say that there were certainly situations where people were offside and I addressed it for sure and I think that’s important.
In the moment or after?
Both. Listen, if we’re talking about kneeling on some guy’s neck that’s one you’ve got to deal with right there, that’s one you’ve got to address right there. You’re gonna save somebody’s life and that’s what you’re paid to do, and then you deal with the culture piece later. But you’ve got to address that now.
But there’s been situations where I would step in and say, “Hey, let me let me talk to this person first.” And I would address whatever we came to that house for and then go into the car and say, “Hey, that’s not OK. We can’t be having these types of issues, those types of conversations, speaking to people that way.”
I’ve done that too. So I’ve done both.
Are people receptive?
Some people are and some people aren’t and that’s what people don’t understand.
Some people, the next day, you can kind of talk about it. There are people who want to change – I’m not talking about police now, I’m talking about human beings. People want to change. By and large, people want to do the right thing.
But there’s right and wrong and there’s life and death and there’s urgent and not so urgent. We prioritize things every day and what we have to start prioritizing to me is systematic injustice.
What prompted you to leave the police? I’m sure there was an opportunity to have quite a career there.
There were points where I said I wanted to be the next Chief Ford [Keith Forde, who was the 18th black officer to join TPS when he started in 1973 and was the first rise to Deputy Chief when he retired in 2010] and there were points were I said, “No, I want to do something different.” So, all of the above.
I think for me it was time. I just knew when it was time. You’re always balancing the impact you could have in a certain area with other things – could I try and be the chief versus what else you want in life and how you want to live.
You’re constantly reflecting and asking yourself these questions that all revolve around race, obviously, but you’re asking yourself these things and you’re bouncing them around.
And for me, coaching was another avenue.
I think for me pivoting [to coaching] was not so much about the issues in police – I feel like I probably could have kept going and had a very successful career – but there was more to be done I think.
So then, why coaching?
I really appreciated my ability to recruit a player who was probably in the same situation I was growing up in Regent Park and giving them an opportunity to get an education knowing that education will help them advance from a socioeconomic standpoint or can help them advance. It’s not the only way, but it’s one of the ways.
My teams were very diverse and they were diverse deliberately because it was important to give people opportunities to mix and mingle and talk and be from different backgrounds. That was super important for me.
And that’s what’s beautiful about sport right? It brings people together. And when you’re the head coach you can do that, you can really bring people together. You have the choice, you have the ability and, in some sense, you have the responsibility to make sure that people are exposed to different things in different ways; that they’re getting a broad perspective and you’re challenging them to ask questions; you’re challenging them to challenge the system because their voice does matter.
I was reminded by a [a former player] two days ago that when Donald Trump got elected we talked about it for the first 15 or 20 minutes of our practice when I was at Brock. It was important for us to have those conversations.
And podcasting? What is Just Think About It all about?
The framework is what I call a “Wire-style,” where we look at the issue [of systemic racism] from all different angles. I’m going to do about six episodes, eight maximum, and we’ll have guests from different sectors.
We’ll have one who works with the TDSB doing a lot of anti-racism work, training and so forth, the justice system is next and we’ll do police reform, to lawyers to judges, everything. I got media, sports, politics and healthcare, too.
So six different issues and we’ll attack them from different angles.
And then I’m done, I’ll never do another one [laughs].