Michael's Essay: Policing the Police

An RCMP officer armed with a beanbag shotgun during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, BC. (2010 Legal Observers/Wikimedia Commons)

An RCMP officer armed with a beanbag shotgun during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, BC. (2010 Legal Observers/Wikimedia Commons)

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No segment of civilian society has been more mythologized than our police forces. Most of us played cops and robbers as children. Many of us truly wanted to become a policeman.

We spent much of our youth watching cop movies and cop television shows. Who wouldn't want to grow up to be Sgt. Joe Friday in Dragnet? Or Kurt Wallander or Raylan Givens? We listened to Sgt. Preston of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on radio (with his faithful husky dog Yukon King) and read the Dale of The Royal Mounted series for teenage boys. Our popular literature, our television viewing, are dominated  by police procedurals.

But the myths surrounding police in this country are starting to break down. The glue that binds a police authority to the civilian population is weakening.

For example, there is the myth that policing is a dangerous occupation. In fact, it is one of the safest jobs in the country in terms of death and injury. It doesn't even make the Top Ten of dangerous jobs, falling well behind construction work, forestry, manufacturing, farming, mining, transportation and so on.

Another myth which seems to be breaking down is that our police forces are highly, expertly, trained in dealing with any and all situations, especially those with a high expectation of violence. Recent events have proven that wrong. In Toronto, more than 20 cops had no idea how to deal with a teenager trapped in a street car, brandishing a pen knife. He was shot and killed in a hail of police bullets. In a Toronto suburb, cops tazered an 80-year-old woman in obvious mental distress. There are other such incidents, including the notorious killing of Robert Dziekanski in the Vancouver airport by four Mounties in October, 2007.

But the most serious development in my view is the growing detachment of our police forces from our communities and from civilian control of their operations. In Ontario, the Toronto police have virtually ignored the authority of the Special Investigation Unit, which is the civilian watchdog on police activities. Police presence in the country's largest city is almost invisible. Where there used to be beat cops walking the streets, the police now ride around in cars. You can go two or three days without ever seeing an officer. The era of the friendly flatfoot is long gone.

Gordon Chong is a former alderman in Toronto. He served on the Police Services Board and was considered by many as a sycophant, a pet poodle of the cops.  Which makes his recent op-ed essay in The Toronto Star all the more remarkable. Mr. Chong said his service on the police board only "served to cement my increasing unease with the policing establishment." He goes on to say: "The barely concealed contempt for civilian authority by a number of officers manifested itself in their words and attitude in private, and their tone and body language in public. Throughout these years, it became apparent that ... the police are generally uninterested in civilian engagement on substantive policing matters."

The modern police force was created in England in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel, based on the underlying theory that "the police are the people and the people are the police." He set down nine principles for the proper functioning of a police department. Each one touches on this idea that cops must not act independently of their community or the entire system breaks down. For example, Principle Number Four: "The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured, diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force." Which is why, for the most part, British police are unarmed.

There is no question that the cops have a tough, often high-stressed job. But it is made harder by a seemingly unbreachable Blue Wall which serves only to protect - their own. As Gordon Chong wrote: "Unless totally tone deaf, the police should realize their perpetually defensive protectionism repels reasonable people."

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