Monday, July 05, 2010

Catalytic overhaul

In the wake of the Somalia debacle in the 1990s, the public and government started asking very serious questions about the system that produced the perpetrators involved in that nasty bit of national disgrace. Hazing videos surfaced, testimony was heard. Eventually an entire Regiment was struck off, and measures meant to change the internal culture of the armed forces were introduced. The actions of a few people had spotlighted the darker side of military culture, and the public was naturally incensed.

The net result of the ISU stunt in Toronto may end up being analogous to what happened to the armed forces following Somalia. The bully-boy sergeant in the video clip is an exemplar of countless other witness accounts. It's this behaviour that is driving the class action lawsuit and demands for an inquiry from all parts of the political spectrum. It could cost the McGuinty government the next election, and result in changes to the police act, and clarification of law regarding police powers around protests. Whatever the powers behind the G8/20 stunt had intended, they created the conditions for public overhaul of policing in Canada.

In military, I heard howls and screams about how things like sexual harrassment and racial prejudice training, and clearer definition on what sort of behaviour was tolerable would erode discipline and impinge the combat effectiveness of the armed forces. Brutal training was required, and the harder the better because it produced tighter unit cohesion and tougher and more driven soldiers and commandos. Where the upward limit on that was, and exactly what type of training or hazing was actually necessary and what the psychological effects of too much brutalizing were, who knew? There was a great whinge from certain parties about how the public or government didn't understand the military and any changes were political in nature and would completely soften and destroy the institution.

Fair enough. Objectively, you have a self-referencing and insular institution seeing itself attacked by the very people it was meant to serve, and the government of the day didn't seem too sympathetic to its cause and interfered with its internal functioning. However, self-referencing insular organisations have few external reference points by which to measure themselves (often other similar organisations elsewhere) so their commentary exists in something of a vacuum. They assume they know what is best for themselves, and not without good reason given their institutional knowledge of training their members. However, this also means they can lose the plot from time to time.

Nearly two decades later however, the Canadian Forces function effectively in combat and pay, kit and quality of life for members have improved by orders of magnitude from the early 1990s. There are benefits like an ombudsman and a much reduced embedded misogyny. The public support of the armed forces is broadly and overtly positive; a far cry from 1994. Would this have happened without some serious disasters? Those initial fears have not, in my view, borne out over time.

With our police, where is a critical look at things such as the influence of new offensive technology such as Tasers, the universal provision of body armour, tactical clothing as work dress, and their cumulative effects on police self-perception and attitudes? Are their certain mindsets that have popularised and hardened within police departments? Does public outcry and investigation over their less than honorable actions actually serve to reinforce organisational insularity and promote further brutality? We saw them close ranks around Dziekanski foursome, and it seems as if the police may have used the G8/20 as a venue through which to hit back at "us" whom they may view as unappreciative and condescending.

Police and military forces have strong internal cultural dynamics which are integral to maintaining the disciplined team functioning that must be reproduced in each generation of members. However, these dynamics are not static and constant self-referencing may reinforce and hyper-define certain cultural characteristics that actually do more harm to the institution than good.

Where the torture and murder of Shidane Arone may have been a catalyst of an overhaul of the armed forces, the death of Robert Dziekanski and the arrest orgy in Toronto may prove catalysts for an overhaul of Canadian policing. These events are symptoms of larger problems.

These are things that should not have happened in disciplined and professional organisations. However, they did occur and there were conditions led to those outcomes. When the institution tolerates and protects individuals like the Four Horsemen of YVR, instead of charging or firing them at the minimum, something is wrong with it. Or when bullying and abusive cops are given free fire arrest orders by their leadership, so there be causes. If the sergeant above were interviewed and allowed to freely rant, we might expect to hear a litany of complaints about the conditions of his service and the sources of his attitude problem. Some of them might be quite serious and worth looking at.

The desire to punish or call to account overstepping police should not distract from a broad and critical look at the organisational culture and working environment of their service. The cops at Toronto may have just done themselves and the public a huge favour, although they mightn't see it that way for a long while.

And coblogger Alison, whose mind must run on a something like a google algorithm, reminds us it's been said before.

Inadequate policies, supervision, data collection and analysis have undermined the RCMP's ability to demonstrate adherence to four of the nine principles articulated by Sir Robert Peel. These principles are:

  • The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.
  • The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.
  • Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.
  • Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

A continued departure from these principles by the RCMP is not a minor matter. It is a harbinger of a new model of policing in Canada, one in which the police are a group distinct from the public and whose decisions are the preserve of public safety experts. It is a model in which officer safety takes precedence over that of the general public and where the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is significantly undervalued. The cumulative effect of these trends over time may reduce the degree of co-operation of the public that is essential to public safety in Canada.

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