A Dangerous Isolation

The police are moving farther away from the public they serve.

Canadian police are under scrutiny … still. Several public inquiries are underway to investigate complaints of police brutality and unlawful confinement during a mass protest. Initial investigations found no wrongdoing. Investigators cannot identify officers involved. No police witnesses come forward. Civilian witnesses bring out video evidence. After a reinvestigation, an officer is charged.

A young black woman is strip searched, her clothes are cut off her back and she is left topless in a cell in full view of officers for hours.

Several deaths occur across Canada as a result of police use of a new “non-lethal” weapon. Inquiries are held. Some officers are found to have used excessive force. Some rules change.

These are current news stories, but they are not new. They have all happened before.

Twenty-five years after John Sewell wrote Police: Urban Policing in Canada, police accountability is still more promise than reality. His new book reprises many of his earlier themes: police culture, bloated budgets and misconduct.

Sewell has had a front row seat in the social and political theatre where policing has played its role in our lives, most prominently as mayor of Toronto. And he refused to leave when the rest of the audience got complacent, setting up the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition to keep watch.

Over the years, the cycle of scandal and reform has repeated itself. On any other stage, revelations of wrongful death, racial profiling or lying in court would have brought wholesale change. At the very least, the CEOs would have resigned. Instead, there has been a parade of inquiries and reports, police complaints commissions created and then disbanded. Throughout, Sewell and TPAC would show up and ask: “Did you make the recommended change?”

Sewell has unwavering patience. He commends, for example, the Independent Investigation Office recommended by former judge Thomas Braidwood after the inquiry into the tasering death of Robert Dziekanski in 2007. Having catalogued the roadblocks that police have thrown in the path of Ontario’s Special Investigation Unit, and even saying that “the experience in Ontario … casts doubt on the ultimate effectiveness of this mechanism,” Sewell nonetheless says that the Braidwood proposal for an independent agency to investigate all incidents of death or serious injury at the hands of police should be endorsed and enacted throughout the country.

Well, yes! That should have been done when Ontario’s SIU was created in 1990 following the Lewis Task Force on Race Relations and Policing—which was called to deal with a rash of deaths of young black men at the hands of the Toronto police. But given the tension and police backlash that greeted the SIU’s first few directors, civic leaders in other jurisdictions were no doubt hiding under their desks!

So 20 years later might seem as good a time as any to call for a national standard in police accountability mechanisms.

Sewell points to the police subculture to explain why police, as an institution, resist civilian oversight and true accountability. Because of the need to respond to real and ever-present danger, “an officer is taught to be suspicious” and to “act from a position of power, as an authority.” This “shape[s] police personality and create[s] police culture” and leads to the isolation that drives police to seek their own kind.

This distance that police keep from the people they are meant to serve plays out in different ways but particularly, because “officers think they are not understood, the culture resents civilian control.” This explains but does not justify the resistance to the various police oversight mechanisms that have been tried over the years.

Even police funerals—mercifully rare—occasions when the public and the police might be joined in common compassion, contribute to this distance. Sewell characterizes them as a “show of force … [resulting in] the intimidation of anyone (particularly public leaders) considering expressing criticism of police activities.” And he should know. He failed to attend a police funeral once when he was mayor and the Toronto police have never forgotten. Sewell’s recent open letter to the new Toronto mayor about cutting the “gravy” in the police budget drew a scathing comment from a retired staff superintendent in the Toronto Sun: “Sewell’s attack on the police isn’t constructive criticism or well meaning. It is just a long-time cop hater being a cop hater,” followed by this, referring to the funeral of Michael Sweet, a young police officer killed in the line of duty in 1980: “The mayor of Toronto, John Sewell, could not be bothered to attend the funeral. Once a jerk, always a jerk.”

But Sewell is not the only one who questions police funerals. Writing in Spacing magazine online, John Lorinc, while quick to express profound regret for a recent police death in Toronto and the need for the city to mourn together, nevertheless admits: “I do not understand why the police … insist on transforming a deeply human tragedy into a show of force and a media circus.” Rather than bringing the police and civilians together, Lorinc suggests, “the sheer elaborateness of police funerals serves (perhaps unwittingly) to minimize the sacrifices made by hundreds of other individuals who lose their lives while doing sometimes-risky jobs, among them the garbage collector crushed by his truck last summer in Vaughan. Do those lives count for less?”

Of course not. But in carrying on rituals that reinforce their “otherness,” police do themselves a great disservice.

They bristle under rules and traditions we would never accept. The events that claimed Constable Sweet’s life 30 years ago claimed another more recently. Sergeant Edward Adamson, son of a former police chief, came on the scene as Constable Sweet lay dying, held hostage by his killers. He wanted to storm the building but was told to stand down. Obeying that order haunted him for three decades and he took his own life in 2005. His widow sought to have his name entered on the Wall of Honour commemorating officers who died in the line of duty—and has been denied by police leadership because he died by his own hand and not a felon’s. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board ruled in 2009 that his suicide was a direct result of post-­traumatic stress brought on by guilt for not disobeying the order and saving Sweet’s life. Armed with this finding from the civilian world, his family is pressing again to have his sacrifice acknowledged. As this goes to print, Sgt. Adamson’s name is still not on the Wall of Honour.

Policing is a noble public service. Officers rush in when others are rushing out of the way. That is the job we have asked them to do for us. They are entitled to all the resources they need to do their jobs and to keep them—and us—safe. Nothing is gained from perpetuating the suspicion and distance between the police and the citizenry. When something goes horribly wrong, the systems of accountability must be respected by everyone in order to restore and maintain trust.

Police leaders are fond of quoting Sir Robert Peel, credited with creating the modern police force: “The police are the public and the public are the police,” which some have improperly equated with “L’état, c’est moi.” But Peel’s principle actually continues with “the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.” That is, the police are part of us, who just happen to hold the job of ensuring community safety and security. His second principle was even clearer: “the ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon the public approval of police actions.”

Sewell’s point is simply that such approval must be earned; it is not an entitlement.