THE BLOG

Police Should Serve and Protect... Our Charter Rights

06/14/2012 07:38 EDT | Updated 08/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Remember Mark Charlebois? Maybe you don't know his name, but you probably remember the video of the York Region police sergeant telling a Toronto G20 protestor that "This ain't Canada right now."

As reported in the Toronto Star June 6, the York Police Services Board has declined to lay misconduct charges against him, claiming a six-month deadline had long expired and that the protestor, Paul Figueiras, is suing Detective Charlebois.

This is how Charlebois himself recalls the incident: "I mean, (Figueiras is) going, 'I have my rights, this is Canada,' all this stuff. I'm just giving him gibber back, right?" Charlebois told investigators. "We do it all the time. Guys are talking nonsense and he got nonsense back."

So our rights are 'nonsense'? It is galling to read this so shortly after the release of the Office of the Independent Police Review Director's scathing report of police conduct during the G20. Not only is their antipathy towards ordinary citizens perfectly clear, it appears that they don't really care who knows it. While OIPRD head Gerry McNeill's report blamed key police commanders for the G20 civil rights debacle, there's no escaping that anti-rights sentiment was manifested by the behaviour of the rank and file across the city during those hot, ugly days. Charlebois' attitude was the rule, not the exception. Police didn't just arrest innocent civilians, they did so with a savage glee that was thoroughly alarming to witness.

If the police are broadly and actively against our Charter rights, then we have a real problem that demands serious attention. Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair's response, to lay misconduct charges against certain commanders is certainly appropriate insofar as it goes. By virtue of their positions alone they have their share of responsibility. But it's much more than just the commanders; the real problem is the culture of law-enforcement.

Ordinary police officers' willingness to engage in rampant rights-breaking and general mayhem against the general population is unacceptable. It is unacceptable in a 21st century liberal democracy, and it is unacceptable under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In a truly democratic culture, those police officers would have simply refused to take part in a mass violation of citizens' rights. They would not have kettled people in the rain, and they would not have snarled and sniggered at the hundreds of detainees -- you know, Canadian citizens -- shoved in cages for no good purpose at all.

Perhaps part of the trouble is that most Toronto police officers don't even live in Toronto. A 2010 study found that three quarters of them live in suburbs and small towns in Durham, York Region and further afield. While of course police officers, like anyone else, are free to live wherever they like, as a trend it is counter-productive. It can only exacerbate the sense of alienation between the community and police officers. It also mirrors old patterns of how the state maintains order. Dictatorships have used this technique for centuries -- using legions from distant parts of the country to keep the local population down. It is easier to be dismissive or hostile if the citizens they're dealing with aren't even part of their own community.

Better policing happens when the community feels like the police are on their side. Getting the police out of their mobile fortresses/data centres (i.e., police cars) would be a great first step. Officers walking a community beat would have a better opportunity to get to know the neighbourhoods they police, and to build trust with community members. And the police themselves would probably find their jobs far more rewarding then they do currently. The "us against them" mentality they evidently labour under is not only unproductive, it must be a stressful drag for the police themselves.

Another positive measure would be for the authorities to reward the few officers who did try to do the right thing under difficult circumstances. I'm talking about the officers who let people out of the kettling situation, and the officers who tried to be decent to the caged detainees.

For the long term there has to be a fundamental change in the relationship between law enforcement and protesters. In a working democracy making a stink about a public issue in a public place is not only legal, it is something of a civic obligation. How many have fought on battlefields, in the streets and in courtrooms to give us rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression? This wasn't so that we could address public policy only in theory; it was so that we could actually participate in the public forum and effect the change we want.

That large numbers of officers are routinely sent to police demonstrations is ridiculous. It is not only provocative, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of a liberal democracy. The sooner the authorities realize this, the better for everyone concerned.