Mis­sion Creep

In their ef­forts to de­fend of­fi­cers, po­lice as­so­ci­a­tions are be­com­ing alarm­ingly politi­cized

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Joshua Ostroff

David- Hughes La­cour, seven­teen, had just dropped two girls off at a high school when Éric Des­lau­ri­ers, a sergeant with Que­bec’s pro­vin­cial po­lice force, spot­ted him in the park­ing lot. The red Mazda that La­cour was driv­ing had been re­ported stolen in Sain­teAdèle, a small town out­side Mon­treal. Des­lau­ri­ers called for backup and parked his pa­trol car across the exit to pre­vent an es­cape. But, in­stead of wait­ing, he stepped onto the icy lot, drew his 9mm Glock, and ap­proached the teenager from the driver’s side. La­cour revved the en­gine; af­ter ini­tially rais­ing his hands, he ac­cel­er­ated. Des­lau­ri­ers fired his gun, lodg­ing a bul­let in La­cour’s left el­bow. The sec­ond gun­shot flew through the driver’s open win­dow, sev­er­ing his jugu­lar vein and carotid artery. La­cour died in hos­pi­tal the same day. Three months later, Des­lau­ri­ers was back to work; ten months af­ter that, Mon­treal po­lice charged him with man­slaugh­ter; and, last fall, a judge de­clared him guilty. (Des­lau­ri­ers is ap­peal­ing the con­vic­tion.) But the pro­vin­cial po­lice as­so­ci­a­tion — the labour or­ga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing the rank and file — never stopped de­fend­ing the dis­graced of­fi­cer, call­ing the judge’s de­ci­sion “in­com­pre­hen­si­ble and un­ac­cept­able.” Des­lau­ri­ers, a state­ment from the as­so­ci­a­tion said, was an “ex­cel­lent” cop. Last month, cit­i­zens com­mended the re­straint of Con­sta­ble Ken Lam, the now fa­mous of­fi­cer who ar­rested Alek Mi­nas­sian — the sus­pected driver of the van that killed ten peo­ple in Toronto in April — without fir­ing a sin­gle shot. This praise came partly be­cause of the in­creas­ing pub­lic per­cep­tion, here and in the United States, that po­lice have gone rogue — and they are sub­se­quently de­fended by their pow­er­ful as­so­ci­a­tions, which often refuse to co-op­er­ate with in­ves­ti­ga­tions into mis­con­duct and crit­i­cize any re­sult­ing criminal charges. Re­cent events from across the coun­try show as­so­ci­a­tions re­act­ing with sim­i­lar de­nials to al­le­ga­tions of bru­tal­ity, sys­temic racism, and mis­treat­ment of the men­tally ill — and they have been largely dis­mis­sive of in­de­pen­dent over­sight. Over the past eight years, for ex­am­ple, the Toronto Po­lice As­so­ci­a­tion (TPA) has vig­or­ously en­dorsed its mem­bers’ ac­tions dur­ing the in­fa­mous 2010 G20 demon­stra­tions, which in­cluded of­fi­cers hid­ing their name tags and as­sault­ing pro­test­ers, and it has tried to halt sub­se­quent le­gal pro­ceed­ings against po­lice. It has de­fended the prac­tice of card­ing long af­ter it has been shown to fo­cus on peo­ple of colour, and it has backed mul­ti­ple of­fi­cers in­volved in po­lice shoot­ings—even James For­cillo af­ter he was con­victed, in 2016, for fa­tally shoot­ing Sammy Ya­tim on a Toronto street­car. A po­lice as­so­ci­a­tion isn’t quite a union — it can’t or­ga­nize a strike. Still, it man­ages in­ter­nal griev­ances, ne­go­ti­ates salaries, and raises safety and staffing con­cerns. These tasks were orig­i­nally an as­so­ci­a­tion’s en­tire pur­pose. But, over the past decades, the role of po­lice in so­ci­ety has be­come in­creas­ingly politi­cized, and it seems that mis­sion creep has set in for these or­ga­ni­za­tions. To­day, as more and more stud­ies, gov­ern­ment re­ports, and protests tar­get po­lice mis­con­duct, ef­forts by as­so­ci­a­tions to de­fend their mem­bers have caused many peo­ple to lose con­fi­dence in the in­sti­tu­tions al­to­gether. A sur­vey last fall found that three-quar­ters of Toron­to­ni­ans be­lieve the TPA “cares more about its mem­bers than it does about cit­i­zens and polic­ing.”

The first po­lice depart­ment in Canada was es­tab­lished in Toronto in 1834. Back then, so­ci­ety’s “watch­men” were most often backed by those who val­ued the preser­va­tion of the sta­tus quo — often, in ef­fect, an of­fi­cer’s role. Cops en­forced racial seg­re­ga­tion — for ex­am­ple, by jail­ing Vi­ola Des­mond for sit­ting in the “white” section of a Nova Sco­tia movie theatre in 1946. They en­forced drug laws tar­get­ing Asian Cana­di­ans in Bri­tish Columbia and took In­dige­nous chil­dren from their homes to res­i­den­tial schools. The North-west Mounted Po­lice, later re­named the Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice, sup­pressed In­dige­nous re­bel­lion in the Prairies. In the 1960s, US ac­tivists be­gan de­mand­ing that of­fi­cers be held ac­count­able for al­le­ga­tions of racism, and po­lice as­so­ci­a­tions did not wel­come the change. New York’s Pa­trol­men’s Benev­o­lent As­so­ci­a­tion boss said, in 1966, “I am sick and tired of giv­ing in to mi­nor­ity groups, with their whims and their gripes and shout­ing.” The same con­ver­sa­tions were hap­pen­ing in Canada. Af­ter two black On­tar­i­ans were shot by po­lice, in sep­a­rate in­ci­dents, in 1988, the city es­tab­lished a task force on “race re­la­tions and polic­ing” and a civil­ian-led Spe­cial In­ves­ti­ga­tions Unit. This was the first time that po­lice were ex­pected to an­swer di­rectly to the pub­lic. Over the fol­low­ing decades, in­de­pen­dent over­sight bod­ies were es­tab­lished across the coun­try; po­lice as­so­ci­a­tions largely re­sponded to their in­ves­ti­ga­tions by ad­vis­ing mem­bers not to co-op­er­ate. They didn’t trust, as Van­cou­ver’s as­so­ci­a­tion said about the pro­vin­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tions of­fice last year, that a civil­ian com­mit­tee could “prop­erly in­ves­ti­gate what are pretty com­pli­cated, com­plex, se­ri­ous in­ci­dents.” Polic­ing is a dan­ger­ous and vi­tal job, and many of­fi­cers be­lieve, not without jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, that they need to do ev­ery­thing they can to pro­tect the pub­lic. But it’s the very be­lief in the job as a no­ble task that can make as­so­ci­a­tions blind to their mem­bers’ own trans­gres­sions. In 2002, for ex­am­ple, the Toronto Star pub­lished a se­ries called “Race & Crime” that ex­plained how po­lice were treat­ing black peo­ple un­fairly. In re­sponse, the TPA launched a $2.7 bil­lion li­bel suit, which was even­tu­ally dis­missed by the Supreme Court. Fol­low-up re­port­ing by the Star showed that the po­lice prac­tice of card­ing — ar­bi­trar­ily stop­ping peo­ple on the street and record­ing their per­sonal in­for­ma­tion — was also dis­pro­por­tion­ally af­fect­ing black peo­ple. Even though the On­tario leg­is­la­ture re­stricted card­ing last year, the TPA never stopped de­fend­ing it as an ef­fec­tive tech­nique. “I think we can pretty much accept [that sys­temic racism] is a re­al­ity,” says Ak­wasi Owusu-be­m­pah, a crim­i­nol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto. To ac­knowl­edge its ex­is­tence would be an op­por­tu­nity for po­lice to mend re­la­tions with mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties (and some po­lice chiefs, in­clud­ing Toronto’s for­mer chief Bill Blair, have rec­og­nized the ef­fects of “bias”). But as­so­ci­a­tions — in their at­tempts to de­fend mem­bers from law­suits, pay cuts, and dis­grace — have re­fused to en­gage; if any­thing, they’re mak­ing mat­ters worse by act­ing on the de­fen­sive, con­vinced that crit­ics are us­ing iso­lated events to trick the pub­lic into be­liev­ing that cops are racist. “In some cases . . . of­fi­cers get­ting charged is only to sat­isfy pub­lic opin­ion,” says Louis-philippe The­ri­ault, pres­i­dent of the RC MP’S as­so­ci­a­tion. “Cer­tain el­e­ments of so­ci­ety you are never go­ing to be able to con­vince that you are there to pro­tect them.” Af­ter Ab­di­rah­man Abdi, a So­mali Cana­dian, died in 2016 as a re­sult of a po­lice al­ter­ca­tion in Ot­tawa, Matt Skof, head of the Ot­tawa as­so­ci­a­tion, said that race would be an “inap­pro­pri­ate” topic to dis­cuss. “They’re just cap­i­tal­iz­ing on a very tragic in­ci­dent,” he later told me. “To sug­gest that a po­lice of­fi­cer is racist is ab­so­lute big­otry.” This di­ver­gence of per­spec­tives came to a head at the 2016 Pride Pa­rade in Toronto, when Black Lives Mat­ter Toronto in­sisted that uni­formed of­fi­cers be banned from the event. Their pres­ence, the group said, would make racial­ized mem­bers of the com­mu­nity feel un­safe. The de­mand led to TPA pres­i­dent Mike Mccor­mack ac­cus­ing BLMTO of “try­ing to drive a wedge” be­tween the pub­lic and po­lice. Sud­denly, ev­ery of­fi­cer in Toronto was im­pli­cated in a po­lit­i­cal bat­tle about race and LGBTQ rights — whether or not they agreed with the as­so­ci­a­tion’s stance. And a cel­e­brated com­mu­nity event be­came mired in con­tro­versy.

The ac­tions of po­lice as­so­ci­a­tions — in­clud­ing their pub­lic sup­port of in­di­vid­u­als ac­cused of mis­con­duct — have made a large part of the pub­lic lose faith in po­lice. Af­ter all, it can be hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween a union’s stated po­si­tion and the be­liefs or ac­tions of an in­di­vid­ual mem­ber. To­day, sur­veys show that many Cana­di­ans don’t trust or have con­fi­dence in po­lice forces. And if peo­ple don’t feel com­fort­able call­ing for help or giv­ing au­thor­i­ties the in­for­ma­tion they need, that makes Canada less safe for ev­ery­one. Car­leton Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor of crim­i­nol­ogy Dar­ryl Davies says the so­lu­tion is to in­tro­duce leg­is­la­tion that re­stricts as­so­ci­a­tions’ purview to labour is­sues. “When unions start go­ing be­yond that [and] act­ing above the rule of law, it should not be ac­cept­able or tol­er­ated.” But, if as­so­ci­a­tions do re­main in the pub­lic sphere, then pres­i­dents such as Mccor­mack and Skof need to ac­knowl­edge that sys­temic racism is a prob­lem and push for more di­verse hir­ing and bet­ter racial-sen­si­tiv­ity train­ing. They should pre­vent un­nec­es­sary deaths by de­mand­ing clearer use-of-force pro­to­cols, im­proved de-es­ca­la­tion tac­tics, and more train­ing for in­ter­ac­tions with the men­tally ill. And they should work with civil­ian au­thor­i­ties and com­mu­nity ac­tivists. In or­der to im­prove their re­la­tion­ship with the pub­lic, as­so­ci­a­tions will need to fol­low the ex­am­ple of Con­sta­ble Lam: demon­strat­ing that po­lice care as much about pro­tect­ing the pub­lic as they do about pro­tect­ing them­selves.

Sur­veys show that many Cana­di­ans don’t trust or have con­fi­dence in po­lice forces.

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