A thin blue line, doing nothing

NationalPost.com – Vince Weiguang Li is escorted to a court appearance in Portage la Prairie, Man., on Aug. 5, 2008.
Thursday, Jul. 29, 2010.  Father Raymond J. de Souza, National Post

In the continuing debate over police tactics during the recent G20 summit in Toronto, the focus has been on whether civil liberties were violated in order to keep the peace. From a distance though, it seems to me that the more fundamental question is how the police were unable or unwilling to keep the peace — as least for those property owners whose windows were smashed, or those taxpayers who watched police cars abandoned and set aflame.

Like most Canadians, I am inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the police, but doubting the capability of the police to protect persons and property is hard to avoid when faced with events such as the G20. With months of preparation and an extravagantly unlimited budget, the police were unable or unwilling to prevent the destruction of even their own property. The date and the time and the place and the tactics were known to all in advance. What would happen if there were to be an unexpected public disturbance, from an unknown source using unknown tactics? Would the police be able to cope?

It is not a question for downtown Toronto alone. Here in Kingston, Ont. we lost our annual Queen’s University homecoming tradition after several years of a rowdy street party. The police knew a year in advance the exact hours and location of the unapproved revelry, but were unable to secure two city blocks for a space of eight hours. Or perhaps unwilling? Despite bringing in hundreds of extra cops, the expensive police operation consisted mostly of setting up a perimeter and observing the mayhem. Lacking the force reserved to the police, the university cancelled homecoming. There are consequences when the police do not effectively police.

My colleague Lorne Gunter argued in these pages this week that the police do not investigate minor break-ins anymore, but just provide bureaucratic assistance for insurance claims. In the past five years, I have dealt with several break-ins, thefts and acts of vandalism. He is right: In no case did the police provide anything other than record-keeping over the phone.

Is effective police protection a right of citizenship? It is contractually bought and paid for through tax dollars? Or is it a bonus that is to be enjoyed here and there, but not to be expected?

Those questions were put before a court after the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) stopped providing protection to non-natives in the town of Caledonia –creating a certain official lawlessness. The OPP was taken to court for that unwillingness to protect, and the Ontario government settled the suit before a judgment could be rendered. Perhaps the government thought it unwise to answer the question of what exactly we can expect from the police.

There is another case before the courts that merits a remembrance, as Friday is the second anniversary of the horrific murder of Tim McLean. He was the young man killed on an overnight Greyhound bus in Manitoba on July 30, 2008, stabbed repeatedly to death by Vincent Li, his psychotic seat-mate. When the RCMP arrived, Mr. Li was alone on the bus with Mr. McLean, whom he had decapitated. The RCMP secured the bus — which had already been immobilized by the driver — and left Mr. McLean’s killer undisturbed for five hours. The killer then proceeded to cannibalize his victim. The police did not stop the defiling of the body, even though they had lethal force at their disposal and the killer was alone. They simply waited until Li left the bus voluntarily. Last Friday, two passengers on that bus filed suit against the RCMP, arguing that witnessing what the RCMP permitted to take place caused them irreparable harm.

It is a difficult time for our police forces. The RCMP Commissioner is under fire from his own senior officers. The Air India inquiry exposed a deeply flawed investigation. The Robert Dziekanski case revealed officers who lied to prosecutors about their role in his death at the Vancouver airport in 2007. Then there are the questions about the G20. Yet all those matters involve what the police did, and did poorly. But equally serious are the cases where the police do nothing when something urgently needs to be done.

Spare a thought for Tim McLean on Friday. And do not forget the police who failed him.

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