What are the police for?

Posted on in Equality Delivery System

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
April 13, 2015.   Matt Gurney

What are the police for?

The answer to this seems obvious, especially for those of us lucky enough to have grown up in Canada, or a similarly advanced country where the rule of law is taken for granted. The police, with no disrespect to them intended, don’t have to do much because we live in a generally safe place. They patrol the roads, investigate those crimes that do occur, and keep an eye on things. Canadians respect their police, pay them well … and don’t need them all that often. Not a bad situation to find yourself in, all in all.

But what about when we do need them? Things go wrong sometimes. And what do we expect of our police then?

You got one perspective on that question last Friday on this site. Chris Lewis, former commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, wrote a defence of his former command (that was the headline, in fact). Mr. Lewis noted, in my view rightly, that the OPP is a credible, trustworthy force, capable of investigating the provincial Liberal government (as it currently is in several parallel cases). Mr. Lewis also made clear recent criminal charges against certain executives from the force’s association — the union by another name — for alleged fraud do not impact on the good work that the frontline officers do every day, and again, he’s right.

But Mr. Lewis also touched on what many Ontarians and Canadians more generally, who are normally inclined to be supportive of the police, have never been able to forgive the OPP for. Mr. Lewis spoke of the OPP’s tough task managing a contentious, sometimes violent land-claim dispute between First Nations protestors and the residents of Caledonia, Ont. — a crisis that left many, myself included, disgusted at the sight of provincial police officers standing by while Mohawk thugs intimidated and sometimes even assaulted non-native citizens. (I won’t recap the entire affair, which Mr. Lewis inherited after succeeding Julian Fantino as commissioner, but would encourage anyone who hasn’t already to pick up a copy of my colleague Christie Blatchford’s book, Helpless.)

Mr. Lewis calls Caledonia “one of the most challenging and volatile operations in OPP history.” He says the fact that no lives were lost is proof that the OPP did its job “very well.” He explains that there was genuine fear that a strong police stand against the Mohawks could have triggered widespread native protests that “could have completely halted all Canadian transportation and trade routes from coast to coast for months or more.” If the OPP had taken a strong stand, Caledonia, Mr. Lewis says, “would likely have been engulfed in an extensive military operation for years to come.”

I don’t disagree with a word of that. I think Mr. Lewis, whom I always respected as a competent and thoughtful police commander, is exactly right. But recall the question I asked above — what is the job of the police? If the stakes at this high — if enforcing the law will endanger lives and the economic future of the nation — clearly, we’re beyond their mandate. Defenders of the OPP’s conduct, and this includes former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, say that the police did a great job keeping the peace in Caledonia, but here’s the thing — that’s not their job. Police officers enforce the law. The military keeps the peace — and if the situation was truly as bad as Mr. Lewis says (and I agree it was), the military should have been the ones on the ground. In Caledonia, and wherever else their deployment became necessary.

Calling in troops would be a political nightmare for any provincial government, of course. No one wants to admit that they’ve lost control of a situation and need the Armed Forces. But providing such assistance — “aid to the civil power,” it’s called — is explicitly part of what our Armed Forces are tasked to do. Canada does not have a law comparable to America’s Posse Comitatus, which forbids the use of federal Army and Air force troops in law enforcement roles (except in very rare circumstances). Enforcing public security is part of what our military is for.

But in Caledonia, a decision was made to, bluntly, not risk starting a fight by taking a firmer hand on those occasions that protest spilled over into lawlessness. That was half of the right decision. The OPP should not have been tasked with taking that firm stand, but someone else — the Army — should have been.

I’m not saying they should have rolled over the Mohawks with tanks and mortar fire. But they should have replaced the police as the first line of response in the operation. The military knows as much if not more about winning hearts and minds and keeping a lid on tense situations as any police force. The skills they develop to do that broad apply just as well here at home. And they’d have had the manpower, training and equipment to respond to any threat or challenge if the PR campaign failed.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people tell me how Caledonia changed how they view the OPP
Keeping the OPP there as long as they were was a mistake — unfair to both the people of Caledonia, who thought they were getting cops instead of peacekeepers, and unfair the OPP itself. The best part of using troops instead of police officers in a situation like Caledonia is that, eventually, the troops go home. After a hopefully brief, hopefully peaceful operation, the soldiers pack up their gear, load up their trucks and LAVs, and go back to their bases.

The police don’t get to do that. They’re part of the community, in and around it. Bad blood lingers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people tell me how Caledonia changed how they view the OPP. They don’t trust it and won’t go out of their way to help them in their investigations. Nor do they take for granted anymore that, if they call 911, anyone will really help them. In a society like ours, that isn’t good. We have good police, but if the relationship between them and the public begins to break down, everybody loses.

In Caledonia, that relationship broke down, and I’m not sure it’ll ever be repaired. The OPP was given an impossible task there. The scandal isn’t that it made mistakes or failed to keep everyone happy. It’s that it was put in that position in the first place.

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