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Sunlight: the best disinfectant

When I started this blog, I wasn’t anti-police. I saw police as a necessary part of society, with individual officers being basically decent people who react badly when the chips are down, due to over-work and high-stress jobs. My view of individual officers hasn’t changed much, but as I learn more I have begun to see that there is much more to the picture.

The beautiful thing about science is the peer review process. I am not simply referring to the formal process that happens when you submit a manuscript for publication, but the climate of collegial over-shoulder-reading that is de rigeur for the discipline. Scientists do not research in a vacuum – we present our findings at conferences, we discuss them at professional meetings, and of course there are publications. In so doing, not only do we ensure that we learn from each other, but we stand a much better chance of catching each other’s mistakes.

Not so for police – the attitude from various police departments is one of insularity, croneyism and unflagging loyalty, regardless offense. This attitude is perhaps on no better display than in the following tragic story:

CBC News has learned that one of B.C.’s highest profile Mounties says she’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after years of sexual harassment. Cpl. Catherine Galliford was the face of the B.C. RCMP for years. During her tenure as the RCMP’s spokesperson, Galliford announced the arrest of Robert William Pickton and revealed charges had been laid in the Air India bombing. But in an internal RCMP complaint, Galliford makes serious allegations about misconduct inside the RCMP.

(snip)

Galliford says the command and control structure at the RCMP means Mounties are instructed to do as they’re told, or risk getting reprimanded. “If they can’t screw you, they are going to screw you over. And that’s what it became like and so I started to normalize the harassment because I didn’t know what else to do,” she said.

It’s hard (for me at least) not to feel physically sick when you hear stories like this. I have not been in the working world long (let’s say 7 years), but I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. I am sure I owe a great deal of my shelteredness to the fact that most of my working experience is in health care research, a field with high levels of female participation and leadership. That being said, it boggles my mind to think that anyone, in any field, would be exposed to this kind of assault. Privilege is a motherfucker, I guess.

To be fair, police are not the only sector where this kind of disgusting behaviour goes on, and passes unreported because victims are low-power and female. Sexual harassment isn’t a relic of a bygone “Mad Men” era, where we can exchange firm slaps on the ass for pats on our own backs for being so much more enlightened. I recognize that it is an ongoing problem that is endemic in our larger society. The reason I pick on the police is because of statements like this:

In response to Cpl. Galliford’s allegations, the Mounties issued a statement. “The RCMP is very concerned with the health and welfare of its employees and ensuring a safe and timely return to work,” it said. “Police officers are also regularly exposed to traumatic incidents which the average citizen may only be exposed to once, if at all, in their lifetime. The statement added that “RCMP officers, like all citizens, can develop physical and psychological illnesses.”

When I first read this, my jaw dropped. It’s one thing for a bunch of small-minded yokels on comment threads to say something like “shit happens, get over it.” It’s another matter entirely for that to be the official response from a federal agency. Can you imagine for a moment a university, facing charges of widespread academic misconduct resulting in harm to study participants, releasing a statement saying “sometimes professors forget to be careful about their data – big whoop!” Well, maybe if it was the football coach

The RCMP is hoping to write off Ms. Gailford’s PTSD as being simply part of the “wear and tear” that comes from being a cop. This is a pretty convenient way (for the RCMP, at least) to sweep allegations of widespread and enduring sexual harassment from superiors, fostered by an insular and abusive environment cultivated by the upper brass within the organization.

The correct response would have been to say “the RCMP is very concerned with the health and welfare of its employees. We take allegations of misconduct by our superior officers extremely seriously, and will be launching an extensive investigation of this and any similar incidents. We are at our most effective when our officers feel safe and confident, and we will not tolerate anyone undermining that feeling of safety.” That’s not what they said though. They said “being a cop sucks, lady, and you’re probably crazy because you’re a cop. Sexual harassment? Never heard of it.”

Whether we are talking about the Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, or the RCMP, it has become abundantly clear to me that any organization that is responsible for monitoring itself will inevitably become corrupt and self-serving. The paint is beginning to crack and peel from the farce of “Internal Affairs” in police departments, or the laughable practice of having police department A review the actions of police department B when misconduct is alleged. When the goal of investigations is not to root out wrongdoing, but to protect the accused from justice, the role of investigator is completely worthless.

If police organizations like the RCMP are even passably interested in upholding the “protect and serve” motto that they have plastered on their vehicles, if the oaths they swear are anything more than a mouthful of words as fleeting and ephemeral as hurried promises made in the back seat of a car, if police wish to maintain any claim to decency whatsoever, then the culture of law enforcement must change. Integral to that change is the involvement of civilian oversight and scrutiny, where police departments are beholden to the public. Not the easily-manipulated political representatives of the public, but members of the public themselves.

The police have abused the trust that the public have placed in them, and have lost the privilege and veneer of respectability that was granted to them by the people they swore to serve. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, then it is the job of the citizenry to place a check on the power of the police. Ask Corporal Galliford – they can’t do it themselves.

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