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Law and Disorder

Occasionally, events conspire to force me to subtly shift the focus of this blog. What started as a forum specifically for issues relating to race, free speech and religion has since expanded to include feminism, LGBT, law, politics, psychology, and secularism. To this litany of overlapping topics I am about to add a new one: crime.

As you may know if you pay attention to those sorts of things, Vancouver recently had a riot that followed a hockey game. Windows were smashed, people were stabbed, cars were lit on fire – it was a real shit show. It is inaccurate to label them as ‘hockey riots’ though, because they had nothing to do with the result of the hockey game. People came to the downtown area from surrounding municipalities with the sole purpose of causing damage – they brought rocks, gasoline, and masks to hide their identities from cameras.

Of course, such an event necessarily included response by law enforcement, who have been taking quite a bit of criticism for failing to react faster, or more thoroughly, or taking whatever steps were necessary to prevent widespread violence:

Vancouver police are defending the number of officers on the street during last week’s riot, saying it was about the same during the gold-medal hockey game in the 2010 Olympics. “It is true that about 5,000 officers were brought in from other jurisdictions for the Olympic Games, but those officers were for deployment by the Integrated Security Unit inside venues from Richmond to Whistler.

The Vancouver Police Department policed the streets of Vancouver, with some assistance from the ISU in the final days,” said a statement issued by police on Thursday. The force is continuing to refuse to release its tally of feet on the street, saying even if it did, it wouldn’t matter anyway because there will always be debate over how many officers would have been enough.

This more or less agrees with my take on the situation. When you have a crowd of 30,000 people involved in a massive orgy of destruction, there’s very little that having more police there can do. This particular paragraph resonated strongly with me:

“The fact still remains that the number of police on the street the night of June 15, correct or not, quelled a violent crowd of 30,000 people in three hours without major injuries or a single complaint of excessive force or unlawful arrest. Our goal once the riot began was to protect lives, end it as quickly as possible.”

This is the role that police are supposed to perform: protect lives and property (in that order of priority), and to respect the constitutional rights of even those that are committing crimes. The response from the VPD was measured and lawful, and as a result they are enjoying a great deal of public support (the criticisms and questions notwithstanding).

Either police chief Jim Chu is particularly forward-thinking and enlightened, or his policy just happens to coincide with those kinds of principles. At any rate, the VPD’s behaviour seems to reflect an understanding of the fact that the most powerful tool that the police wield is the respect and trust of the people  they are sworn to serve and protect. Respect for the law and those that uphold it is not something that can be legislated or purchased at the point of a gun.

When police behave well, they reap the benefit of not having to work as hard. The immediate response of the people of Vancouver following the riots was to submit photographs and videos to the police department, in the hopes that the police would be able to ferret out those that attacked the city. That is what respect and trust buys you. The other side of this is what happens when people don’t trust you:

Newly released G8/G20 summit documents reveal the RCMP and various Ontario police forces spent several months infiltrating anti-war, anti-globalization and anarchist groups with the use of undercover officers ahead of last June’s summits in Huntsville and Toronto.

<snip>

“A large number of the people charged with conspiracy were arrested prior to anything happening on that Saturday demonstration,” [Laurentian sociology and history professor Gary] Kinsman told CBC News, saying he himself was among the peaceful demonstrators at last year’s Toronto summit. “So the evidence collected from the people who infiltrated the activist groups was basically used to criminalize the organizers, prior to anything actually taking place.”

Using police power to criminalize dissent itself, rather than actual breaking of the law, increases scrutiny and suspicion of police officers. The RCMP and Ontario police’s borderline-illegal (of course, if the police do it, it’s not illegal) behaviour during the G20 summit in Toronto is a prime example of when police overreaching undermines their own credibility. People lose trust in the institution, and begin to demand answers. And, as sure as night follows day, incidents of police corruption are never isolated.

I disagree with anarchist groups, I disagree with anticapitalist groups, I disagree with antiglobalization groups. However, provided they are not breaking laws or conspiring to break laws (which is itself against the law, so maybe that phrase is redundant), I think they have the right to exist. After all, if the measuring stick against which we decide which groups are allowed to exist is whether or not I personally agree with them, then we can just go ahead and disband the Republican North Party right now.

When we allow police officers to infiltrate groups because they don’t like them and arrest people with no evidence of a committed crime, we open the door to criminalizing any political dissent. We have absolutist states in the world where political dissent is illegal – trust me, you don’t want to live in them.

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