When was the last time you had a neighbourly chat with an on-duty police officer? You know, just a how’s your day going, sir or ma’am, lovely morning, keep up the good work, etcetera and so on. We’re not going to say it never happens, but we’d venture that it is extremely rare. Most of us know the police only as those people in uniform who drive around our neighbourhoods in cruisers with tinted windows while wearing wraparound sunglasses. Actual human interaction is rare. When it does happen, it is tinged with the threat of confrontation. They are not us. And that is not how it’s supposed to be.
If you argue at this point that the police are indeed not us and shouldn’t be, you’re wrong. The police are an elemental part of our communities. We create them, regulate them and pay them. We put huge trust in them by giving them powers of detention and arrest, as well as permission to use deadly force, so they can keep order and make us feel safe. They were never meant to be a distant force, imposing order from on high, with its own culture and internal rules.
We have spent much of the past week decrying the erosion of the vital trust that allows police to operate effectively. The steady diet of fresh online videos showing officers turning routine stops into violent confrontations and then lying about it is reaching a tipping point. In Toronto, the Police Service’s decision to continue the controversial policy of “carding,” where officers randomly stop innocent people and treat them as though they were under investigation by demanding ID, only adds to the sense that police operate in a world that is detached from ours.
An Ontario Superior Court ruling on May 7 crystallized this sentiment when it found that a Toronto police officer “took the law into his own hands and administered some street justice” to a man he was attempting to card in 2011. The constable falsely arrested a Sudanese immigrant who was innocently walking home from his mosque, and punched him twice in the face when he mildly resisted the infringement of his rights. The judge awarded the man $27,000 in a decision that fairly drips with sarcasm about the behaviour of the officers involved and their obviously backfilled testimony. The judge expressed “disapproval and shock” that the officers seemed to be operating under the impression that unconstitutionally detaining, searching, abusing and assaulting an innocent man was standard procedure.
This erosion of trust is a crisis. Modern policing in Canada is an outgrowth of the Peelian Principles, a set of guidelines developed by Sir Robert Peel, the British home secretary who established London’s first professional police force in 1829. Chief among them is the idea that the public is policed by consent, not by the authority of the state. The ability of police officers to do their job is dependent on the public’s approval of their existence, actions and behaviour. We need the police, and the police need us.
If that approval is missing, then police can’t function with any democratic legitimacy. Absent that, the only power they have derives from the inertia of their existence – they’re not going anywhere, and you can’t live without them, so what are you going to do if they misbehave?
The staggering thing about the growing distance between the public and those who keep public order is that most North American police departments believe that they are practitioners of what is known as “community policing.” It’s a philosophy developed in the 1970s in response to the violence and decay in inner cities of that era. Police chiefs and their overseers are great defenders on paper of the Peelian principle that they must work with the community to prevent crime. They do it through consultations, public meetings and presences at schools and public events. It can be an effective way of reducing crime and building trust.
But calling it “community policing” does not, by itself, mean you’re part of the community. Not if your officers play by their own rules and deliver street justice. It is telling that one of the solutions to the problem of trust is to put a body camera on officers, as Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and other Canadian cities are doing, and as many U.S. cities have already done. It is a move we entirely support. But it is regrettable that it has come to this. If officers have to record their every interaction with the public as a form of guarantee that they will play by the rules, then we are at a low point in policing history.
We can’t help thinking that the entire face of policing would change if more officers got out of their cars and off their bikes, and got to know the communities and people they serve – on foot. Officers should be assigned permanently to neighbourhoods and greet the people there with “courtesy and friendly good humour,” as the Peelian principles have it. They should be a visible, integrated part of communities and shed their bunker mentality. There should be more random conversations, a fewer random confrontations. In an overwhelmingly law-abiding country like Canada, this should be the norm. And it shouldn’t be hard.
Because the public wants the police. We know they make a sacrifice by taking on the dangerous jobs that civilians have no taste for. We resent people who deliberately antagonize them. We are on the side of order. We just want the police to remember where their power comes from.
Imagine an officer saying hello to you in a friendly way. Imagine if you’d seen the officer the day before, and the day before that. You might cringe at first, but slowly you’d get to know the person behind the badge. Then they would be us.