Commentary - Why today’s police are failing ‘to serve and protect’

Too often, the action is grossly disproportionate to the need. There’s something deeply wrong with the way some police operate

Routine traffic law offenders like myself are often struck with the arrival of each new ticket about how a lot of police enforcement is built around the model of ‘force.’

The point of issuing a ticket doesn’t really seem to be about changing behaviour but rather penalizing an individual for not obeying a rule. Or, if you’re truly a cynic, meeting monthly quotas.

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Some of those rules, at least, are there for a good cause – to make our roads safer. The question is whether ‘gotcha’ enforcement is the best way to achieve the stated goal.

I thought of this relatively trivial example of policing-through-penalty as I contemplated the literal head-busting that’s going on in the U.S. and, sadly, Canada. Thanks to now ever-present cellphone video, the public is discovering just how widespread the overuse, and abuse, of physical force has become.

Too often, the action is grossly disproportionate to the need.

The appalling shooting deaths of people who were allegedly resisting arrest has elevated this trend into an international crisis of conscience. Why are black people and other minority populations, including Indigenous Canadians, being killed by overaggressive cops when, to a bystander’s eye, it appears less brutal methods could be used to subdue them – if indeed they needed to be subdued at all?

The answers are far from simple. For sure, on many of these occasions police are under a great deal of stress, circumstances are evolving quickly, and they’ve been trained to use necessary force to ensure the safety of the public, fellow officers and themselves.

Yet we also know, as in the notorious 2013 case of Sammy Yatim in Toronto, that sometimes an officer’s judgment can be way off.

Yatim, an 18-year-old ethnic Armenian, appeared to be “mentally unstable, and oblivious to others’ presence” according to witnesses, when he pulled out a switchblade knife on a Toronto street car late one night, terrorizing fellow passengers.

Police were called and Yatim eventually allowed passengers off the car. After a verbal confrontation with police, he was hit by eight shots fired by James Forcillo, a Toronto police officer. While Yatim lay dying on the floor of the streetcar, he was also tasered.

Forcillo was charged and ultimately convicted of attempted murder.

But what’s really illustrative is the way his lawyers framed part of the defence: Forcillo testified that he was following standard police procedure. He told the court that he believed Yatim was a threat when he repeatedly ignored his orders to “drop the knife” and instead proceeded to advance towards the officer.

In other words, Yatim’s death sentence was delivered because he – in an unstable mental state – didn’t obey a police officer’s order.

So if the mission of any good police force is “to serve and protect,” then the questions that follow are: To serve whom? And to protect whom from what?

In the Toronto incident, as much as passengers on the street car deserved to be protected from a knife-wielding man, Yatim also needed to be protected from himself. One officer failed disastrously in that mission.

But what do we need police for anyway?

Although it’s self-evident that an absence of some sort of security force could lead to crime in the streets, it’s less clear that the militaristic and authority-based approaches found in many police departments are the wisest, most enlightened or even most efficient way to manage public safety.

A recent editorial in the Globe and Mail recalled the nine principles of sound policing, as expressed by Sir Robert Peel, the man credited with creating the first modern police service in London in 1829. All nine are worth reading, but I was struck in particular by the first and third principles. I have italicized some key phrases:

1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.

3. To recognize always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.

By those measures alone, there’s something deeply wrong with the way some police operate, even if the departments they work for have well-stated intentions.

Something is terribly wrong with policing in North America.

And, with declining public respect, citizens are beginning to reject the authority of these organizations to maintain order. Radical solutions are being actively advanced, including the concept of “defunding” (actually realloacting funding) from these increasingly paramilitary groups.

I think this demand for change is healthy. But where do we go from here?

Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.

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