Jun. 19, 2020

We are looking at a discipline problem, not a racism problem

It is painful to watch people wrestle with the new media and political phrase, “systemic racism” as if it was meaningful and relevant. Synonyms for ‘systemic’ are ‘complete’, ‘general’, ‘total’, and ‘universal’. The idea that every person associated with an institution is racist is not reasonable.

It is more accurate to state that our society is prone to discrimination. Everyone, regardless of colour, ethnic origins and race has prejudices, conscious and unconscious, and each of us has to deal with them as best as we can. The notion that minorities are exempt is ridiculous.

For the ten years January 2010 to December 2019, Canadian police were involved in 118 deaths. Over the same 10 years we had about 5,875 homicides (figures for 2019 are incomplete). Police involved deaths are about two per cent of all homicides, too low to indicate systemic racism as both the figures include all races and amount to less than one incident per month.

Our justice systems grew out of tribal and clan feuds. Two people from different tribes or families got into a dispute that resulted in the death of one. The tribe or clan of the victim would seek revenge by killing a members of the killer’s clan. No consideration was given to cause of the dispute or if the victim was guilty of some crime.

The situation quickly got out of hand with members of clans sworn enemies of other clans leading to murders of people who had nothing to do with the original dispute. Eventually we decided that we needed a neutral force to arrest and try people accused of crimes. We decided that the force we created had to be able to prove guilt before a jury of peers to avoid wrongful convictions.

Police have the power to use lethal force to prevent harm to themselves or third parties. They must never be allowed to use excessive force, that is more force than required to make an arrest, or deadly force if lives are not at risk. To do so negates the justice system. The core of the problem in the Floyd case and others is abuse of authority, not racism.

Bullies have an innate sense of picking victims least likely to resist and unlikely to file complaints that cannot be brushed aside. We are looking at a discipline problem not a racism problem. We cannot assume that the problem is confined to enforcement.

It goes much deeper and involves the politicization of our crown officials, judiciary and police forces. We have lost the political neutrality essential to a fair and functional justice system. In the SNC-Lavalin and Vice-Admiral Norman scandals, political interference was rampant and every effort to establish the truth has been stonewalled. The problem is rooted in the highest levels of government. Arrogant disrespect of a blind, fair and neutral justice system seeps down though the ranks and creates problems where authority meets the public. 

We have layers of incompetent management within the justice system and people who cover up unacceptable actions of employees to avoid culpability for mismanagement.             

We need to focus on equality in application of the law. The place to start is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 7: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.       

Key words are: “in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice”. We need to expand on that section starting with what are police powers to stop and question someone through to what are the rights of an accused during questioning and arrest.

Lack of clarity leads to misunderstanding and controversy. Some people have the impression that they cannot be stopped for questioning or that being stopped for questioning is harassment or racism when it may be neither. From a police perspective, clarity on when questioning is appropriate would help clear the air.

The lack of trust must be bridged. Calling the lack of trust “systemic racism” avoids the problem and offers no solutions. Redeveloping trust takes time and effort. This is a common problem. No one  is exempt. We either recognize our failure to communicate and resolve problems or prepare for riots and destruction. Ignoring the issue leads to disaster. 

Our justice system needs a complete overhaul. The enforcement end is highly visible and receives most of the attention (and contempt) but the system can provide solutions, including clarification of Charter Section 7 in clear, easily understood language. People aware of their rights are much less likely to find interactions with police intimidating or frightening.

All sides need to step back, take a deep breath and resolve to be part of the solution rather than continuing confrontations that only highlight problems rather than resolving them.

  1. We need an arms-length federal agency reporting to the Attorney General (separated from the Minister of Justice) to investigate complaints of excessive use of force.
  2. That agency must have to powers to subpoena any witnesses to an incident. Witnesses who provide accurate testimony to that agency must be protected from retaliation by employers, unions and everyone else. The objective is to get at the truth and deal with it accordingly.
  3. The agency must have the power to charge and prosecute anyone who has wrongfully employed excessive or lethal force.
  4. Those charged with wrongfully using excessive or lethal force must be brought to trial within 18 months. Justice must be seen to be done if we want to restore trust in the law and police officers.
  5. We need to have an enforcement agency that tracks provocateurs. They attach themselves to protestors and agitate for destructive actions, or engage in rioting not condoned by the protest organizers. They deserve to be charged and prosecuted for their crimes.
  6. We have to make justice department appointments politically neutral. That can be done by utilizing the Privy Council office if we divorce the Privy Council from the PMO and put it where it belongs, reporting to the Governor General.

     We have approached police discipline on the basis that officers do a job few of us would want and we should cut them some slack. That is a breeding ground for bullying and intimidation. Those high standards are meaningful and breaches of standards must be dealt with.

We can’t shunt the problem over to police forces. All of us have to ensure we do not contribute to discrimination. This is not a problem for police or for minorities or for people of colour. It is our problem if we want an orderly and peaceful society.

We have to ensure that those we encounter are treated fairly, respectfully and worthy of our trust. There is a small segment of our society that betrays that trust, act criminally and disrespectfully. We can deal with those people, but cannot use them as stereotypes. They are not typical of any group and cannot be used as examples in our evaluation of others.

We harbour resentments when we are badly treated and take out those resentments in our dealings with others. That is the crux of the problems we face with minorities. If we want the hurting to stop, we have to bury our resentments, acknowledge that we are part of the problem and vow to do better.