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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Constabulary Duties

When did the phrase “to serve and protect” begin to ring so hollow?

Paul F. McKenna

On October 13, 2007, Mr. Robert Dziekański, a Polish immigrant seeking to join his mother in Canada, arrived at the Vancouver International Airport. What transpired over the next several hours is a tale of horrific blundering and brutality resulting in the death of Mr. Dziekański. Overwhelmed by four heavily armed RCMP officers, Dziekański received the short, sharp shock of two discharges from a conducted energy device (a.k.a. Taser) in a Kafkaesque scene captured by video on a bystander’s cell phone. The Canadian public has always been alert to police activities when they involve bungled investigations or when officers have erred, or appear to have erred, in ways that lead to perceptions of police misconduct, brutality or corruption. However, the calamity of Dziekański’s death and the excessive violence that appeared to be in operation in this instance created sustained public indignation and revulsion that has rarely been seen in this country.

What happened to this bewildered, exhausted human being was not only the latest in a long litany of RCMP errors that one prays will lead to a fundamental reordering of that organization. It was also a bellwether for a crisis in Canadian policing at large, one that has left the Canadian public feeling profoundly uneasy about its traditional “guardians.” This essay examines aspects of policing in Canada and offers a tentative diagnosis of some chronic problems.


Canadian policing is, as one might expect in a confederacy dedicated to peace, order and good government, largely a product of compromise, cooperation and co-dependence. Our approach to law enforcement is a blending of British and American traditions in a reasonably sound synthesis. Canadian policing lacks the blatantly political symbiosis that exists in American cities where the chief of police is chained to the commanding voice of the mayor’s office. The startlingly realistic HBO series The Wire could not be set in Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal or Halifax without major script changes in which the chief of police was accorded more operational independence. However, there is a great deal that Canadian police organizations share with their American counterparts, including an insatiable appetite for technology, weaponry and equipment. Predictably, our police leaders turn equally to their British and American colleagues for insights on innovation, new initiatives and promising programs. This is not purely a function of our smaller size as a nation. Sadly, it is a direct and debilitating result of a prolonged neglect of robust research and development within the Canadian policing community. The research that is done is largely devoted to advancing technological sophistication and promoting refinements in weapons, vehicles and protective gear. British police, by contrast, have high-quality contributions coming out of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and the National Policing Improvement Agency, as well as a host of social policy research “houses.” The Americans have a steady stream of excellent resources from the Police Executive Research Forum and the RAND Center on Quality Policing to supply police organizations with timely and thoughtful research. Canada has little to match these repositories of information and inquiry.

Since the swearing-in of the Harper government in February 2006, there has been a continued erosion of support for sound strategic research that could benefit policing in Canada. This deteriorating landscape is best exemplified by the appearance of a seminal publication, entitled Re-imagining Policing in Canada, in 2005. This work, edited by Dennis Cooley, has important contributions from many leading academics and observers of police organizations. It represents a significant contribution addressing critical issues in Canadian policing. These essays were originally prepared for a conference on public and private security sponsored by the Law Commission of Canada. In December 2006, the Harper government permanently dismantled the commission. The impact of losing such an entity for the policing community is palpable. Those police organizations that are large enough to have in-house policy and research capabilities are largely consumed with immediate operational imperatives rather than long-range, original or critical inquiry. Accordingly, the research and development enterprise in Canadian policing is more inclined to self-fulfilling prophecy than to serious exploratory hypothesis testing and objective program evaluation.

There has always been a gap between reality and the corporate information provided in marquee documents, such as strategic plans or annual reports. In these sanitized documents, everything is presented in the most favourable terms, in the most complimentary language, and with the most steadfast optimism for future health and growth. The palpable truth of organizational life is, however, more sobering and less sanguine. In modern policing, reality may be profoundly disturbing and uncontrollable, something the public never fully grasps when gazing upon the serenity of the local police headquarters. It is rare for the public to gain deep insight into the actual workings of a police organization such as that offered by the recent independent investigation of the RCMP pension fund and the follow-up diagnostic provided by the Task Force on Governance and Culture Change in the RCMP. These two government-directed probes, combined with operational catastrophes represented by the death of Robert Dziekański and the shootings of several RCMP officers, have opened a window into the management and leadership of the RCMP and have resulted in calls for invasive treatment. David Brown, in his role both as independent investigator and as chair of the RCMP task force, is to be congratulated for representing the courageous call on more than cosmetic surgery for this esteemed organization. The RCMP has been revealed as a corporate entity in need of comprehensive and critical treatment. This treatment must include a new prescription for the leadership of the organization and must be given sufficient scope for staged implementation guided by special expertise that is broadly interdisciplinary and avoids insularity.

During the 1980s and ’90s, Canadian police organizations steadily intensified their attempts to comprehend and internalize the philosophy and principles of “community policing,” which seeks to invest citizens with increasing responsibilities in the co-production of social order with programs such as Neighbourhood Watch. Today, it is rare to hear this term invoked within Canadian police circles in any deeply serious way, in spite of lingering references to this important concept in those marquee documents referred to above. Police chiefs and their subordinates are now deploying financial, human and rhetorical resources in support of something called “intelligence-led policing.” And while such an approach has an obvious positive resonance with the public, it operates through a degree of abandonment of one of the key components of community policing. As a theory in practice, the intelligence-led approach is about re-vesting the police with control of the policing enterprise. Intelligence-led policing is all about the strategic gathering, analysis, assessment, dissemination and storage of information in ways that effectively contribute to law and order.

Intelligence-led policing is much more comfortable with the crime-fighting model than is its community policing counterpart. Indeed, on some level, there is nothing wrong with intelligence-led policing. From a strictly organizational efficiency perspective, it is a winning approach that sharpens the point of police strategies and tactics to their law enforcement ends. Police officers use street-level and other available sources of information (that is, intelligence) to conduct arrests and anticipate crime and disorder problems. However, reformers looking at any number of public institutions in the past diagnosed the fundamental flaw that lies at the heart of intelligence-led policing. The public has a critical role to fulfill in maintaining order and enforcing the law. Community policing seeks to broaden the partnerships that exist between citizens and the police (a subset of the citizenry) in all areas of activity. The “thin blue line” that demarcates intelligence-led policing connotes separation and exclusivity of action rather than partnership with the public.

Of course, the events surrounding September 11 have accelerated and, to some extent, sanctified the apparent abandonment of community policing in favour of its intelligence-led alternative. Security, particularly in its national guise, appears to trump those immediate domestic interests that orbit the concept of community policing. In the United States, the creation of the Homeland Security apparatus led to a fundamental dismantling of support for community policing and its kindred approaches. Everything was reconstituted to align with the overarching war on terror. Canadian police leaders were fairly quick to mirror this altered reality through their efforts at promoting integrated policing (a descendent of the intelligence-led strain that includes “integration” with other law enforcement, security, intelligence and counterterrorism agencies), as well as support for antiterrorism legislation at the federal level. There are compelling reasons to take the threat of terrorism seriously. However, the alacrity with which Canadian police organizations have suited up in support of counterterrorism, security and emergency preparedness paradigms is disappointing in light of their apparent earlier sincerity when espousing the foundational goals of community policing.

The new reality of policing has become enormously complex, largely because one operational template is being superimposed on another. The earlier reactive model of policing remains in place because of public and political demands for rapid response to calls for service. This in spite of research that demonstrates that such response is unlikely to be successful given substantial delays that occur when people try to decide whether or not to call the police. And yet there is increasing emphasis placed upon models that promote community-based, problem-solving approaches that demand an entirely different set of aptitudes, attitudes and skills from front-line officers. These reactive and proactive modes of policing are difficult to synthesize or coordinate, although Canadian police organizations, especially the RCMP, have been attempting to combine them across the full range of operational responsibilities.

There is a persistent sense that the circumstances of 9/11 and its aftermath have allowed Canadian police leaders to sidestep their larger, legitimate and local obligations to community policing. A collateral issue that derives from this reality is the resurgence of the law-and-order theme within Canadian policing. In many jurisdictions, police are legally required to provide a range of core services, including law enforcement, emergency response, public order maintenance, crime prevention and assistance to victims. The first three of these elements are clearly consistent with a law-and-order mentality, while crime prevention and assistance to victims are two pillars of the community policing edifice. Currently, the Harper government appears inclined to advance the law-and-order facets of the police mandate. Indeed, this could be a prudent reading of the public will in such matters, although the weight of academic research reveals that crime prevention is a more efficacious approach to the challenges facing society.

For example, Irvin Waller, the director of the Institute for the Prevention of Crime at the University of Ottawa, has provided an articulation of this perspective in his 2006 book, Less Law, More Order: The Truth about Reducing Crime. Waller continues to plead the case for more investment in crime prevention initiatives, especially those that place a premium on substantial investments in youth, women and at-risk neighbourhoods. The recent “Out for Good” proposal by the chief of police in Kingston, Ontario, which aims to reintegrate released offenders, has, to date, fallen upon deaf ears within Public Safety Canada, the department with responsibility for both the RCMP and Corrections Canada. Out for Good is designed to have police officers involved more directly with high-risk inmates throughout their incarceration and following their release in order to facilitate their transition back to society, as well as to offer a measure of public reassurance. Crime prevention may take many forms, including the careful design of the built environment to promote safety, or investments in social development that promote healthy communities. And yet Canadian police leaders continue to have a much greater appetite for presenting themselves as crime fighters and gangbusters than as community leaders or agents of social change. Many police executives are too impatient, too politically pragmatic, to volunteer for crime prevention initiatives that necessarily take a long time for results to appear. Also, the police culture is largely populated by individuals who seek immediate results and are more inclined to action than to the kind of patient investment of time and energy required by community policing initiatives.

Another area of substantial interest in the political dimension of Canadian policing relates to the evolving role of police unions. In February 2007, justice minister Rob Nicholson confirmed an earlier decision to place police officers on judicial appointment committees. Having fixed upon the putative value of including police personnel in the critical process of selecting suitable judicial candidates, the Harper government could have drawn from several pools of potential advisors. Across Canada there are various forms of civilian governing authority that provide guidance and direction to police organizations. These include police commissions and police services boards, which typically have a blend of elected and appointed citizens who function as a kind of board of directors. One would expect that the federal justice minister would consider these individuals to possess a comprehensive perspective on the Canadian justice system such that their presence on judicial appointment committees would be valuable. Also, the existence of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, representing the interests and issues of Canada’s senior police executives, would seem to be a natural wellspring from which the justice minister might draw refreshing views on judicial appointments. And yet neither of these categories of citizens was invited to take a role on the judicial appointment panels. Rather, the Harper government turned to the Canadian Police Association, which represents the collective bargaining and related labour interests of nearly 55,000 police personnel for support. This decision was criticized by opposition members of Parliament at the time as being transparently ideological and, indeed, a form of gerrymandering. The political expediency, or opportunism, of such a decision is evident. Police unions are powerful political elites in Canada; their strength in numbers is gargantuan. Their national body wields considerable clout and claim with politicians seeking the sanctity of the law-and-order mantle.

Tied to this significant preferment of police associations by the Harper government is another aspect of Canadian policing that should prove revealing. Sworn members within the RCMP do not currently have access to a union in the conventional sense. RCMP members associations exist across the country and allow for a degree of representation in matters of salary, benefits, conditions of employment, health and safety. However, the RCMP Act precludes sworn members from joining a union that would collectively bargain on their behalf. This is a complex issue that has been tenaciously debated over several decades. What is illuminating is the recent reaction of the CPA to the impressive, urgent and extensive recommendations of the RCMP’s Task Force on Governance and Cultural Change. Having applauded (somewhat speciously) the appointment of outsider civilian, William Elliott, to the position of commissioner, the CPA reacted with considerable animus to the recommendations of the task force in mid December 2007. Without pausing to parse the precision and wisdom of these recommendations, the CPA has gone on record dismissing the efforts of the task force simply because there is no recommendation supporting RCMP unionization. In essence, the CPA has chosen to play the Cyclops against the Odyssean efforts of the task force, which crossed the country listening to RCMP officers, civilian members, local politicians and other stakeholders in preparing their recommendations for the rebuilding of this organization. Such reaction on the part of organized police labour in Canada is disappointing, regardless of one’s stance on the merits of unionizing the RCMP. By dismissing out of hand everything brought forward by the task force, and by attempting to undermine the credibility of the membership and consultative approach of the task force, the CPA has reverted to theatrical unionist rhetoric that police scholar Peter K. Manning has called the “dramaturgy” of policing. An “our way or the highway” mentality is not helpful in such circumstances.

Without doubt Canadian policing is in the throes of transformative change. Notwithstanding the inherent conservatism of both front-line and managerial strains of police culture, police organizations will be ineluctably drawn into new modes and orders that are now manifest on several fronts. The new patterns of “nodal security” that have been discerned by several criminologists, including Clifford Shearing and Jennifer Wood, indicate that public policing is no longer the exclusively dominant force in a modern society that values security highly. Shearing and Wood argue that the public police must acknowledge the legitimate role of many players (in the public ranks, private security firms, non-governmental organizations, etc.) in order maintenance. The exponential costs of public policing will become a central policy issue as municipalities, provinces and federal authorities come to realize that the fiction of professional public policing is unsustainable. Alternative approaches that serve to regulate and regularize a broader range of public, private, not-for-profit and community-based modalities of public safety and security will materialize, thereby dismantling the monopoly currently held by public police interests. It is possible to make out this sea change in a comparison of two books by former chiefs of police. In Breaking Ranks: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing by the former chief of police in Seattle, Norm Stamper, the reader is enlightened with riveting revelations about the dysfunction of the police culture and the need to reorient policing to accord with new realities of civil rights and human freedoms. In Duty: The Life of a Cop, by former Toronto police chief Julian Fantino, we are served up a ghost-written tome characterized by equal parts of self-congratulation, mythology and Horatio Alger Jr.

Policing is serious business. When we contemplate the sickening scene at the Vancouver airport where police officers went well beyond their use-of-force discretion, we come face to face with the imperative for change. When we witness events in Hay River or Kimmirut, where two very young Mounties met tragic ends as they patrolled in isolated solitude, it is compellingly clear that policing must be reimagined in ways that meet higher human standards of dignity, civility and safety.

Paul F. McKenna is the president of Public Safety Innovation, Inc. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Interdisciplinary program at Dalhousie University.

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