Monday, April 20, 2009

A Self-Fulfilling Nightmare?

The advent of cell phone cameras may have ushered in a new dynamic in the relationship between police and the public.

In Western societies, law enforcement by police depends largely on voluntary compliance. Cops generally expect a significant level of obedience from the citizenry. That's reflected in criminal laws prohibiting us from obstructing police officers. OPO can definitely land you in jail. But surely our cooperation with our police is based more on our respect for them than fear of punishment for disobedience. I think most cops are all too well aware of that.

What happens, then, when the population comes to lose that respect for the police, when that essential trust in their legitimacy and intentions falters? For most of my life I held the RCMP in high esteem but no longer. The majority of the people I speak with seem to feel at least somewhat the same way.

Once that trust is gone, what remains? What else is there but fear or at least some mild apprehension? That's a pretty dramatic shift from a positive to a negative relationship. It seems to me that fear of another person is like a petrie dish to grow anger, resentment, even hostility.

Back when most people respected the cops there was a small minority who simply loathed them and wished them ill. Surely this breakdown in the public's relationship with our police has to have swelled those ranks.

And how does this play out from the cops' perspective? It can't be morale building to feel the chill coming from the man on the street. They must know that hidden among the ranks of the law abiding there is now a larger group that wishes them ill. Can that do anything but increase their own fear of the civilian community?

Our police live in fear and they let us know it. Even in the quietest, most peaceful little town, the cop who sits down in Tim Horton's has a state of the art pistol at his side, mace in his belt and a bulky bulletproof vest protecting his vital organs from threats unseen. He might even have a Taser in his arsenal.

Somehow over the past couple of decades we've transformed cops from law enforcement officers into urban combat warriors. There's something chilling about seeing a riot shotgun clipped into the front seat of a cruiser as though the occupant was on his way to the OK Corral.

It's bad enough that more of us are coming to distrust, some even fear our police but it's worse yet when we're reminded so vividly that these guys with all the firepower fear and distrust us. That can readily cause some of them to overreact, some of which will be caught on a passerby's cell phone camera, that will heighten our distrust in and fear of the cops, and on and on it goes.

While doing my undergrad studies in the states, twice I was pulled over by traffic cops while riding my motorcycle to school. Both stops were over very petty matters. Neither resulted in so much as a ticket. But on both occasions the cop approached me with a drawn pistol. Maybe the Canadian flag I'd sewn on the back of my jacket when I rode through Europe somehow alarmed these people. Their drawn guns sure as hell alarmed me. But that was a particularly bad time for the cops in that area, a number of them had been shot, and they had grown very fearful of the public. This is how the cycle seems to work.

This is an ideal opportunity to nip this in the bud, so to speak. The remedy lies with the police themselves. They need to find a new way of interacting with the public, one that understands some civilian might be recording just about everything they do. I don't suggest they all don sackcloth and ashes but I do think they need to reach out the Canadian people, acknowledge that they need to change and, above all else, convince us to again give them our trust and support.

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