Editorial Comment

Police Are Not The Military

I recall as a young man reading of a native chief who had seen how the police had gone from mounted leaders, who were a part of the community, to become, “soldiers with no legs.” They would rarely leave their police cars as they drove through their reservation. They weren’t whole people, ‘just heads and shoulders’ to the chief. The police had cut themselves off from the community they served, he said. They were no longer part of ‘us’. They had become ‘them’.

One can empathize with that chief when considering the powerful metal behemoths that pass as police equipment nowadays, as highlighted by the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. The troubles of that unfortunate community may seem very far away to us, but those paramilitary police vehicles also exist in Edmonton. Though not ‘tanks’ as some on the shrill side of the argument maintain, these armoured troop carriers do cut off their occupants from those whom they have sworn to protect, even more than just a police car, and no wonder. Designed for the military, they are usually deployed on foreign soil, ideally. They are not intended as policing vehicles. There is no doubt these vehicles give the police new powers, but let’s never forget the truth that ‘power corrupts’. In this case, it is a group that has already demonstrated their corruptibility.

There’s a problem in society when police are no longer automatically respected due to their uniform by an ever-growing segment of the population. Sadly, however, the image of our ‘Mounties’, once essential to our Canadian identity, has been tarnished by ongoing acts of apparent police thuggery. Who has been held to account for all those homes in High River being broken into, egregiously over-reaching their powers? We are sickened that those officers who tasered Robert Dziekanski to death were never even charged for their crime. We see stories in the back pages of the newspaper of this cop or that cop evading punishment from their crimes, often years after the fact.

I’m not saying all police officers are crooked, cruel or corrupt. I know, too, they get hardened, to a degree, by the low-lifes they deal with daily. It’s understandable the job may colour their whole perspective on society.

However, there appears to be a disconnect somewhere, when people who have officially sworn to uphold the law then engage in behaviour that demonstrates they feel they are above it. It is similar to how we feel about Justin Trudeau for having admitted he had smoked marijuana after voting for the law that makes it illegal. Whatever one feels about the legality of the substance, one cannot respect someone engaging in that level of hypocrisy. We all know assaulting someone is against the law. That is why we see it as doubly abhorrent to have officers of the law assaulting people for little justification. Then, when we have seen video evidence of a police officer assaulting someone only to be eventually found not-guilty, we are rightfully outraged.

I do understand that policing can be a dangerous job. However, I don’t believe it is dangerous enough, often enough, to justify armoured vehicles; not even in Edmonton. In fact, as far as dangerous jobs go, policing doesn’t even make the top ten. That dubious honour goes to the logging profession. In fact, the instance of police officers dying on the job in Canada is relatively low. Of course, any is too many, but when you measure against the US example, it’s quite safe.

In that country, according to National Law Enforcement statistics, from 1961 to 2013, their police suffered 8769 deaths. In Canada, the number was 133. This means, on average, 165 US police officers die in the line of duty every year. With them being ten times our size, one would expect a Canadian average of 16.5 but it’s not even close. In Canada, the average is 2.5. Again, the figure is still too high, but does it really demonstrate a need for military hardware in our peaceful civilian landscape?

Consider, too, that the rate of police officers meeting an untimely death is thankfully trending downward, even in America. The worst decade for cop deaths was definitely from 1970 to 1979 when they experienced an annual average of 231. Compare that with the decade 2004 to 2013 and that figure falls to 150. In fact, the 100 in 2013 and the 122 in 2012 combined don’t add up to the average from the 1970’s. It’s therefore apparent the need for these vehicles is actually lessening, not increasing.

Unfortunately, the popularity of these vehicles isn’t lessening. They are getting more and more popular with those in power. The stronger and more powerful the policing becomes, the more capable of becoming our oppressors, rather than our protectors, they become.

Now is the time to limit these vehicles. Now is the time to have an honest conversation of what we expect of our police officers and have levers in place to make sure the police stay within these expectations and not to exceed them.

Where to start? Simple. We begin with requiring every officer being on cam for their entire shift. No shutting it off for any reason other than a comfort break. The videos will be made available to civilian oversight boards for monitoring and taxpayers can request those logs, if they are involved in any police matters pertinent to the recordings.

This is the only check and balance that will work to both winnow out the bad cops and to promote respect and admiration, once more, for the good ones. If we don’t move to stop the expansion of police powers now, look for the scenes in Ferguson to be played out in Canada eventually too.

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