Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ethics of Appearance and Agents Provocateur

My old man tells a story from his police days about a colleague who went undercover to infiltrate a biker gang. His first and last stop was a biker bar. In he strode all dialed up in biker bling, and up comes a waitress who says 'What'll it be, copper?" She might have saved his life.


My gracious coblogger and elegant pizzaneer Alison raises a very good ethical point about accusing someone of being a police agent by appearance alone.

As someone commented at Creekside, do we really want to go down the road of posting pictures of people and accusing them of being police agents based on their haircut and physical build?

And quite aside from the ethics of doing this, you would never know it from the media's fondness for insisting that all black bloc dudes be skinny and come from Quebec but it's not as if there's some hairlength/maximum weight restriction on acting like an asshole.
Are we supposed to believe an undercover cop trashed a cruiser in full view of hundreds of cameras with his face exposed? Really?

Several bloggers, including myself, have made circumstantial arguments involving personal appearance as a marker of police membership regarding several individuals, including one vandalizing a police vehicle.

I stress these are highly circumstantial arguments and do not by themselves constitute proof that the individual is a paid member of the police or similar organisation. Alison is absolutely correct in stating that physical appearance is relative and to hold that as proof of something is a very dangerous path to walk indeed.

All the video shows is a young man with a fit build and crewcut, dressed in clean jeans and a nice jacket, vandalizing a police cruiser.

Anything else I and others read into the footage is subjective and, I stress, quite open to challenge.

However, given past evidence of police agents provocateur in other places, and the overall climate mistrust and Charter subversion on the part of the police last weekend, there is enough room to be at least suspicious of anyone looking police-like doing questionable things in protests.

To me, like the waitress, something seems out of place about the individual in footage and it at least appears to fit a critical profile I have in my own mind. This is my own intuition and I might well be wrong.

I state again there is no definitive proof of anything other than a man vandalizing a police cruiser.

But as I argued in my post, to me it seems there's enough there to raise an eyebrow and ask a few questions. My other inkstained wretch Dave, who probably knows more about this sort of thing that most, maintains the man jumping on the cruiser is not a cop. I'm happy to accept his interpretation.

But that still leaves a great deal of room. The Integrated Security Unit has participants from many agencies. And the G8/20 attracted all kinds of people with all kinds of motives for being there.

At the very least, asking who the man in the photo is may help identify a random vandal. Or someone a little less random and who could be the tip of a potential iceberg that might lead to a public answering for the disaster in Toronto.

Is all this ethical?

Under the circumstances I should think so. All I hope I have done in my post is make a circumstantial argument based on my interpretation of what I see, not a direct accusation. There are enough contextual issues around events in Toronto to at least ask questions, provided that one allows plenty of room for alternative explanations which may yet emerge.

Indeed, asking questions of anyone or anything suspicious around these events is not only ethical, I think it is necessary in a free society. Nearly a thousand people were arrested in Toronto over the weekend, many under a five metre fiction invented, it appears, by a police chief who feels he is greater than the laws he is entrusted to enforce, and others who back him up.

Raising questions and making arguments, promoting discussion, is the best tool we have because it helps us eliminate distractions from facts.

On circulating video footage of the man jumping on the car: he is breaking the law in a public places surrounded be witnesses, cameras, media, and uh police by the score. This, I would argue, is tantamount to consent to be filmed and possibly arrested. And definitely discussed.

The police frequently release the names and/or physical descriptions of people sought for questioning or arrest in wake of crimes. Some people, such as gang members conform to a standards of dress and appearance that may be somewhat distinctive from the rest of the population. If I see a person with waxed and muscular legs, I might wonder if she or he is an avid cyclist or swimmer. In a suit, downtown during business hours, maybe some sort of white collar professional. While objectively they might not be, there are certain physical cues that lend one to formulate one hypotheses over another.

Yes, this is a form of profiling based on appearance, but I would argue it is a critical profiling where a number of pieces of evidence are factored into the equation, from which some educated guesses can be made. Of course, without confirmation, there's plenty of room for alternative explanations.

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