There was once a time when I could have been accurately described as ‘pro-police’. I recognized that in order for a society to progress, we needed to have some way of enforcing law. A society without laws quickly degenerates into violence, and it was thanks to the tireless efforts of police officers and other members of the justice system that we were such a peaceful place to live. I would openly and unashamedly take the police’s side when debates came up in our high school (we had a pair of police officers on constant patrol on our campus). However, as I’ve become a bit more aware of the world and the nuances of the argument, my knee-jerk support for the police has diminished quite dramatically. While I have not yet gone quite to the extent of labeling police indiscriminately as a gang of threatening thugs, events like the travesty that was the G20 summit are moving me in that direction.
I still believe in the principle of rule of law, and I doubt that will ever change. However, I no longer see police as being reliable arbitrators of law. Again and again, we see examples not only of police abusing their power to circumvent justice for themselves, but of such abuse actually undermining justice for others:
The Richmond trial of five men accused of running a multi-million dollar ecstasy lab has been thrown out of court because of what a provincial court judge says were repeated Charter of Rights violations. In January 2007, Mounties uncovered nearly 100 kilograms of ecstasy and nine pill presses in two Richmond homes following a year-long investigation. Tin Lik Ho, Qing Hou, Shao Wei Huang, Yi Feng Kevin Li and Kai Lai Kyle Zhou were all charged with producing ecstasy and possessing ecstasy for the purpose of trafficking. But in a 30-page provincial court judgment, Judge Paul Meyers issued a scathing indictment of the RCMP’s handling of the case. “The police officers who were in charge of this investigation, from start to finish, violated so many Charter rights of the accused persons, that one might have thought that the investigation took place before the Charter of Rights had been enacted,” Meyers wrote.
Asking a conservative what this story represents will yield a very different response than if you ask someone who actually understands what she/he is talking about. A conservative commentator will point out that this is a prime example of the “hug a thug” mentality that liberals have – prioritizing the rights of criminals over the rights of decent, hard-working Canadians. This judge is clearly a liberal activist that doesn’t care about seeing criminals punished for their crimes, or of drugs spreading through communities where they destroy the lives of the young and innocent.
Someone with a slightly more realistic understanding of the legal process will recognize that this is the sign of a healthy legal system (the abuses of the police notwithstanding). Undoubtedly, these men are dead to rights – the drugs were found in their homes along with the method of manufacture. This was not the case of a handful of pills trying to make a quick score, or some guys who just really really like to get high – these guys were mid-level traffickers of a restricted substance. They absolutely belong in jail. However, in their handling of the case, the RCMP decided that their apparent guilt justified shredding the charter. While judges regularly look the other way for slight abrogations of legal rights in clear cases of guilt, Judge Meyers’s report details the extent to which these particular officers decided that they were above the law.
The reason why this ruling is good is because there are countries in the world in which those accused of crimes are treated as already-guilty. We don’t like those countries – they tend to use that justice system to lock up political dissidents. Neither the presumption of innocence nor the presumption of guilt will result in a perfect system; however, one will ensure that fewer innocent people are imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. We can always produce evidence of guilt – evidence of innocence is almost impossible by definition.
What’s more interesting than the finding that drug prohibition causes gang-on-gang violence is our inability – or is it unwillingness? – to learn from repeated demonstrations of this connection. For some reason, we seem to think that what’s happening in northern Mexico – where drug-trafficking gangs are at war with each other and with the Mexican army – is somehow different from what’s happening in Winnipeg, where drug-trafficking gangs are at war with each other and with the Winnipeg Police Service. There is a difference in scale, to be sure, but not in kind. Drug prohibition enriches organized crime, and police crackdowns on drug suppliers provoke gang-on-gang violence over market share.
We know from abundant evidence in other counties that the kind of drug enforcement strategy we use in Canada is not particularly effective at actually reducing crime. This analysis from The Mark suggests that, to the contrary, it actually increases the rate of violent crime as market forces inexorably drive up demand whenever supply is interrupted. If we were trying to reduce crime, we’d change our strategy – we’d do what it took to actually protect the populace against its dangerous elements. However, it is clear that we are not interested in reducing crime, which raises the question of what it is we are trying to do.
It is when we betray the liberal principles of crime prevention and harm reduction that we begin to see the corporatization of law enforcement. For-profit law enforcement strategies only serve those who make profit from crime. If our interest is in doing whatever it takes to ‘punish’ criminals by locking them up, we’ll see more examples like the Richmond case where the rights of the people become a secondary interest to serving and upholding law enforcement’s sworn duty to protect and serve the people.
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