In a hugely important piece in the June 11 Toronto Star – “A rare chance to reform police rules” – a very thoughtful Edward Keenan poses and answers the question: Is there a more important job in a functioning democratic society than the one we entrust to police officers? His answer is “I do not think so.” To Mr. Keenan’s question and answer I will add the following observation from the late Johnnie Cochran, one of those rare lawyers who excelled in the practice of both civil and criminal law, including experience as a prosecutor, that “The policeman on the street was the most powerful person in the entire criminal justice system”.
Keenan suggested that in the upcoming reform of police rules, we should enshrine principles derived from Sir Robert Peel, who was credited with the establishment of London’s first modern police force in 1829. A cornerstone of those principles, he reminds the reader, is the need for the police to foster the trust of the public. In assessing whether our police are sensitive to other foundational Peelian principles like identification of themselves with the community, impartiality in the application of the law and the minimum use of physical force, Keenan poses, among others, the following questions: “Are police acting as members of the community when they do their jobs in a way that leads many entire ethnic communities or neighbourhoods to say they are preyed upon unfairly by officers? Are police using physical coercion as an absolute last resort in their interactions with the public when, for instance, many officers feel that a need to inform citizens suspected of no crime that they talk to that their interaction is voluntary is a forbidding burden.”
Within each question lies an answer that is not encouraging.
I believe with a high degree of certainty that we have reached the point at which we can say that the police institution as presently constituted is incapable of complying with these principles, and that therefore, merely enacting new and better rules will not produce the results that we must have in contemporary Toronto.
I say this for the following reasons. We have been struggling with the problems of police racism and insensitivity since the seventies, when this city’s hue began to change significantly. There have been several blue ribbon commissions of enquiry, and many legislative changes. Many of the most prominent early leaders of the struggle are now dead. There has been no improvement. It is not cynical to say things are worse. For one thing the practice of carding is new and the greatest threat to civil liberties in the last 50 years or so.
It is impossible to inculcate by legislation, the sensitivity, responsibility and judgment required of people exercising the kind of power possessed by police in the 21st century into a group, 90 per cent of whom have formal education equivalent to Grade 11 or 12 available in Ontario today. Our only hope is to remake, over the next 10 years or so, policing, into a true profession like law requiring years of study in the humanities and legal principles, whose practitioners would bring to their work the skill, dedication and ethics that are expected and generally had from the conventional professions.
Romain Pitt is a Retired Superior Court Judge and former board member of the Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice.