As I learn more about the world, I become more and more deeply skeptical of explanations of phenomena that are fixated on ‘personal responsibility’ narratives. If psychology teaches us anything it’s that people behave in ways that not only can they not predict beforehand, but that they cannot even explain afterward. Getting obsessed over laying blame on a lack of character is a temptingly easy but ultimately unsatisfactory approach, because it suggests absolutely no ways of making change (not to mention the fact that it is often demonstrably incorrect).
Yesterday was May Day, where Occupy protesters in New York City (and a handful of other cities – there wasn’t a peep out of Vancouver, which made me very upset) focussed less on blaming a few individuals for the problems facing our current political/economic system, but the factors that made it so corrupt. Predictably, those who staunchly refused to engage with Occupy to begin with will respond by complaining that the protesters are “blaming the rich for being successful”. In the same way, this kind of explanation is so wildly off base as to completely obscure the issues under discussion. Indeed, blaming individuals makes no sense – that’s why nobody’s doing it.
So we have to be careful when we are confronted by a fact like this:
A nationwide Toronto Star investigation shows judges are frequently finding that police officers lie under oath. The dishonesty comes with little consequence to the officer, particularly in provinces such as Ontario where there is no law or policy requiring a prosecutor or police force to investigate the courtroom conduct.
The following suspects have walked free after officers lied in court: an accused pimp of a teenage girl, possessors of child pornography, a major ecstasy manufacturer operating out of a Scarborough house, members of an international data-theft and fake-credit-card ring, marijuana growers, and drug dealers carrying loaded handguns.
In [one] case, Justice Nola Garton said various parts of York Region Det. Robert Worthman’s testimony were “inconsistent and inaccurate,” “exaggerated,” “almost inconceivable,” an “embellishment,” “misleading,” “nonsensical” and “patently absurd.” The judge tossed the evidence and [the defendant] Leong walked free.
It is similarly tempting to rail against “corrupt cops” and decry the kind of scumbag “bad apples” that sully an otherwise noble profession. Similarly (despite my inclination to do so), we cannot simply chalk this up to the fact that the policing profession attracts ‘thugs’. There may be some truth to those claims, but again those explanations leave us with few options. There are scumbags in every profession, and short of increasing the type of psychological screening that police have to undertake, there’s not a lot of options for weeding out the thugs.
The bolded part of the above blockquote (the emphasis is mine), however, provides us with a valuable piece of insight into a way forward. While blaming individuals is somewhat fruitless, we can demand that the justice system hold all people accountable, especially those who are given great judicial powers. The policing systems we have in place reduce the level of penalty that officers face for breaching the public trust. That is a fundamentally broken system – if anything, the penalties should be greater, and warrant investigation of not just the offending officer but all those who work with hir, to ensure that the individual’s conduct is not reflective of a larger problem.
Police forces should be above reproach, rather than above the law. There is something deeply wrong with the kind of system and culture that allows officers to lie and face no consequences. Well, no direct consequences anyway:
Canadians’ faith in their police has plunged by more than half in the past 15 years, and British Columbians have by far the least confidence among Canadians in local and provincial policing, according to a new poll. The survey of just over 1,000 Canadians done in late March by Angus Reid Public Opinion found that roughly four of 10 Canadians have confidence in the RCMP, municipal forces, and the provincial police forces in Ontario and Quebec. That compares to more than 80 per cent of Canadians who expressed confidence in police in 1997 when pollster Angus Reid first posed the question.
Just 27 per cent of British Columbians have faith in the RCMP, while only 28 per cent have confidence in their municipal police forces. Both figures are the lowest in the country.
The problem is that police authority derives from the consent of the populace, and when they lose that they become monumentally less effective at their jobs. Every time an officer slips a brutality charge because a review by a neighbouring police department finds ‘no evidence of wrongdoing’, people notice. When they abuse their authority (or each other) and allow criminals to escape justice, people notice. When they lie to and then subsequently assault the same citizens they are sworn to protect, or when they deceive and spy on people who have broken no laws (in an attempt to induce illegal behaviour), people notice.
It wouldn’t be so much of a problem except that many times we need police to be effective at what they do. For all of my complaints, if my house gets broken into or I start getting threatening phone calls, I’m definitely going to the police. However, if people who witnessed the burglary or know the stalker are so contemptuous of police that they do not co-operate, then I am shit out of luck. Police need to regain their trustworthiness for the sake of all of us.
The answer to these issues simply cannot be blaming individual officers for being bad at their jobs. Human behaviour does not arise from a vacuum, and police officers are all too human. For all the good that many of them do, one cannot simply explain away bad behaviour as a function of bad people. When we see extreme corruption like that which is displayed here, we have to look a system-wide adjustments. Whether that means civilian review or an arms-length investigatory body or a fundamental re-framing of the role of police in civil society, something has to change. There aren’t that many more points left to drop in the polls.
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