Coming to a City Near You

It’s Only a Matter of Time
May 15, 2016

I’ve already posted two blogs voicing my concerns about police over-reaction to minor offences. But a recently released surveillance video of another disturbing incident has me up on my soap box once again. This time a 15 year old black girl was beaten, tazed, and arrested by an over-zealous off-duty Tacoma police officer who was moonlighting as a mall cop. Her crime? She and her little brother were riding their bicycles across a mall parking lot on their way home.

I won’t go into the gross injustice of it. Or the unfairness of such well-equipped and well-trained brutality being brought to bear against yet another unarmed youth. We’ve all seen too many documented cases of excessive violence being used in situations that don’t appear to warrant it. What I do want to discuss is the inevitability of such brutality finding it’s way up here into peaceful Canada.

It all stems from the Police Protections Act, or the Police Services Act, or the Law Enforcement Act, or whatever it’s called in your police jurisdiction. This is the official municipal, Provincial, or State legislation that governs police practices, and that dictates under what circumstances officers can and cannot use force in the performance of their duties. Because it’s this established set of policies that is the source of the problem.

These law enforcement acts authorize and sanction – even condone – the kind of excessive violence that horrifies us. What we see in these shocking videos is considered all-in-a-day’s-work as far as policing goes. In fact, regarding the assault on that 15 year old black girl, the attacking cop’s own department offered the view that their officer “showed remarkable restraint” in his use of force, and that under the circumstances could have used even more force had he wished to do so. Really?!! *

As long as we continue to turn a complacent blind eye to the broad powers that we citizens have bestowed upon our “peace” officers, then we have no one to blame but ourselves if and when those powers are used against us or someone we care about. We are largely responsible for what the police are allowed to do… it doesn’t fall solely on their shoulders.

Right now it seems to be mostly young blacks who fall under the overly-watchful, paranoid eye of the police. Because they’re one of the most disenfranchised demographics in America, young blacks tend to get into more than their fair share of trouble. More than whites? Not necessarily. But certainly easier to identify and to racially profile. That’s why the vast majority of “carding” incidents seem to involve blacks being pulled over and detained for questioning even when they’re just going about their peaceful business. This controversial policing practice has already started to appear in Toronto where it’s been rationalized and lauded as an “effective” crime-prevention measure. So don’t naively think that we’re immune to what’s happening in the States.

So far, the biggest difference between police practices in the States vs. Canada is the touchiness of the trigger that brings the full brunt of force & armament to bear in any given confrontation. It would seem that, to “justify” police use of forceful restraint, incapacitation, or even deadly force, the suspect merely has to demonstrate some element of violence, or even just resistance (as perceived by the officer, of course). Anything will do. Swearing. Attitude. Unwillingness to answer a question. Turning their back on the officer. Reaching for something (anything, it doesn’t matter what). Holding something in their hand (again, it doesn’t matter what). Or even, in the case of that young girl who was attacked by that off-duty police officer, moving her bike a few inches. You see it doesn’t have to be “violent” resistance as we perceive it, but simply an unwillingness to cooperate, comply, or submit. Even if this has not been clearly explained to the suspect.

It’s this new expectation of total police dominance over the situation that is most alarming. Power-hungry cops often resort to violence simply because a suspect refuses to willingly submit to their control. As a result, even non-violent situations can quickly escalate from shouted verbal orders to submit and comply, to violent take-down the instant the suspect violates one of these minor trigger conditions. Because, once the suspect commits a perceived act of non-compliance, the officer has the full support of the Police Protections Act on their side to justify what happens next.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Once the police get involved in a dispute, it becomes THEIR game. That’s what the Police Protections Act grants them. Whatever you were doing, whatever you may think is fair or reasonable, is irrelevant to the police. They are now involved, so it’s now their game and their rules. It’s therefore up to you (even if you know you are innocent) to play the game according to their rules. And that means absolute compliance. Don’t move. Don’t resist. Don’t sass. Don’t be rude. Don’t turn away or walk away. Don’t turn toward or walk toward. Don’t reach, but don’t pull away. Don’t mumble, but don’t shout. In short, DON’T! Unless, of course, you’re explicitly told to do something. Then do it quickly (but not too abruptly), without question, and without comment. Or else.

It’s a tricky, one-sided game with stringent but vague and often unstated rules. So the odds are very good that you’re going to slip up at some point. And that’s where the fairness slope gets slippery. If you’re cooperative and polite, the chances are the police will disregard your slight breach of compliance and things will go relatively smoothly. Like a typical OPP traffic stop. But if you’re black, crazy, suspicious, uncooperative, or a member of the “despicable” group-du-jour, then that minor breach can easily serve as the trigger that launches an attack upon your civil liberties, the likes of which you have never imagined.

And trust me, even if the police are later found to have used excessive force (i.e. your lawyer has shown that you’re an upstanding citizen), they will never be found guilty of a criminal offence because they were doing EXACTLY WHAT THE POLICE PROTECTIONS ACT ALLOWS THEM TO DO! As long as they can show that you “stepped out of line”, the police can do no wrong.

Starting to get the picture? The deck from which the police deal the cards for their game of “cops & perpetrators” is stacked against you… against all of us. They have the training, the brawn, the arsenal, the tactics, and the law (the Police Protections Act) on their side. Once the police show up, your fate is no longer in your hands… it’s in theirs!

As I see it, there are two viable solutions. One is simply to stick your head in the sand and hope that you don’t someday find yourself in a situation where the police eye you as a potential trouble maker. But, if you do, swallow your pride and outrage and make every effort to comply and to behave as non-threating as possible. It’s a sad truth, but if the police show up you need to essentially become their bitch. Because they expect it. Because they’re allowed, trained, and equipped to demand it.

The other solution – the approach I prefer – is to actively petition our politicians and city counsellors to re-open the Police Protections Act (or whatever it’s called where you live) to public scrutiny and debate. To review its policies and to change whatever is deemed excessive in order to prevent future bloodshed and violence from being inflicted by trained officers upon the very citizens they’ve been charged with protecting. After all, isn’t the motto of modern policing “To Serve and Protect”? But to serve who? To protect who? More about that in a moment.

The third option is one that I am loathe to recommend in Canada. That is public defiance and protest of extreme police overreaction like we’ve seen in the States. Such protests only exacerbate the problem. Besides, I truly believe that the majority of police officers are well-meaning professionals who carry out their challenging duties to the best of their abilities. I’m sure that few police want to see otherwise non-violent situations escalate into violent confrontations. Good cops need to be allowed to perform their duties with the full backing of the law. But because of a few rogue cops – those with a vindictive mad on, who harbour hatred towards certain groups, or who are bullies in police clothing – some provisions clearly need to be made to the Police Protections Act to make it possible to charge these thugs with criminal behaviour and to find them guilty if it can be proven that they abused their authority even in the performance of their duties. We, the public, need built-in protection from such trigger-happy, rage-filled cops.

Now, getting back to who the police serve and who they protect… reading the outrage expressed against police who appear to misuse their power, the phrase most often cited is that the police are there to protect us. So why are they attacking us? Well, folks, the truth is that the police are there to protect the status quo… a status quo established by politicians, businessmen, the wealthy, and the influential. In short, by those who control police budgets and who authorize and finance their weapons, paychecks, and benefits. As for the rest of us, they’ve been charged with “keeping us in line”.

To the police, it’s not so much “bad guys” as it is everyday citizens who are seen as potential disrupters of the peace. Why should that surprise us? When police are on traffic duty, isn’t it motorists who are potential law breakers? And when police monitor schools, it’s the students who are considered the potential threat. Likewise when they patrol a dance club on a Saturday night, it’s the club patrons who may be up to no good. And when they keep an eye on a shopping mall, it’s shoppers, motorists, and bicyclists they watch closely. Likewise when they patrol an airport, it’s passengers who fall under their watchful eye. It’s not just your imagination. They really are watching you. What else did you think was going on? To the police, we are all potential “bad guys”.

I know this isn’t the world you grew up believing in. You were told that the police officer is your friend. Well, he or she probably is if you’re part of the established status quo. Otherwise they’re keeping a close eye on you.

And it’s only a matter of time before the rising level of fear & paranoia evident in the States works its way north of the border. Canada has always been a few years behind the States in its attitudes & behaviour. Maybe we see what they’re doing and try to mimic it. Maybe we envy them. Or maybe they simply contaminate our culture with their TV shows and national news reports, job transfers, commentary websites, merchandise, fads & fashions, and food franchises. So we can likely expect that as immigration continues to alter our national demographic, as our population continues to grow, and as incidents of violent crime increase in our neighbourhoods, stressed & threatened police officers will become increasingly paranoid and trigger happy just like their colleagues to the south. And it only takes a few bad cops to be pushed beyond their stress limits and to overreact. Today it might be aboriginal kids from the reservations and inner-city blacks in downtown Toronto whom bully cops regularly target as hapless victims of their legally-sanctioned tactics, but soon it may be ordinary civilians going about their day-to-day activities. And if that happens, remember what I told you… comply!!

I’m just sayin’

* Granted, we are not privy to all the facts in the take-down of that young girl. There were reports that she had harassed some mall customers. Nonetheless, in the video she did nothing to threaten the cop or anyone else around her. Remarkably, she only suffered minor injuries as a result of her ordeal. She was, however, ultimately charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. Unbelievable, right? But, after assessing the evidence and viewing the video, all charges against her were subsequently dropped. She has since acquired legal council and is seeking damages from the property group that owns the mall where she was arrested, and the private security company that employed the off-duty police officer who assaulted her. Click this link to watch the video and learn more.