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Abuse of power; power of abuse

One of the weird facets of having male, able-bodied, and a great deal of middle-class privilege (that really does border on white privilege at times, my skin colour notwithstanding) is that there are a number of evidently-common phenomena that I have simply never witnessed. I have never known someone to be raped*, I have never seen harassment more obnoxious than cat-calls or a honked horn, and as near as I can tell I have never been on the receiving end of serious discrimination either at the hands of an employer or the police. Left with only my own personal experience as a yardstick for reality, it would be trivially easy for me to fall into the seductive trap of assuming that the world is a fair place and the concerns of anti-abuse groups are very occasional and dramatic exceptions to a general trend of figurative rainbows and puppies.

But because I have made the decision to not only listen to those who have experienced those things, but to engage with their ideas and compare them to the few occasions where I have had to deal with being subjected to discrimination, I have learned to let the weight of my skepticism rest more heavily on those who say there’s no problem than those who say there is one. One recent example of a major transition I have made is my attitude toward police. I have seen too many stories of egregious and unpunished crimes committed by police all over the world to believe that these are isolated incidents that are not reflective of a larger and more disturbing trend. Despite my universally positive personal interactions with Vancouver Police (I have repeatedly noted the positive way they handled both the Occupy Vancouver presence and the post-hockey riots), in the absence of robust and meaningful civilian oversight I am obligated to view all officers with suspicion.

I have also learned enough about the phenomenon of abuse (particularly sexual abuse at the hands of professional superiors) to realize that many cases go unreported not because they aren’t serious, but because they won’t be believed. Short of having a video camera and voice recorder on your person at all times, there will never be sufficient evidence for ‘skeptics’ of harassment claims, let alone enough to convince a court of law. As a result, justice against abusers is often elusive. A response of “just report it” is the product of a particularly lazy, unengaged, and clearly unempathetic mind.

Such a mind is our Prime Minister:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is calling on the group Human Rights Watch to share information with police about allegations of abuse by RCMP officers against aboriginal women in British Columbia. Harper also announced that the government has asked the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP to look into the allegations raised in the report released Wednesday by the respected New York-based rights watchdog.

“If Human Rights Watch, the Liberal party or anyone else is aware of serious allegations involving criminal activity, they should give that information to the appropriate police so that they can investigate it,” Harper told the House of Commons in response to a question by interim Liberal leader Bob Rae. “Just get on and do it.”

“Just get on and do it”, says Mr. Harper in response to the repeated violations of not only the trust but the human rights of the Canadian people that his office is supposed to serve. Violations occurring at the hands of the very authorities that Mr. Harper belligerently suggests the victims contact. This in response not to allegations that specific, provable crimes had been committed, but that the oversight of the RCMP has failed to detect or address the issue of abuse in the first place, and that focussed inquiry was needed to prevent such cases in the future (one would not be out of turn to note the similarities to the Roman Catholic Church).

I suppose that one could, if one were feeling particularly charitable, argue that perhaps Mr. Harper had just failed to apprehend the full scope of the issue – that he simply didn’t know that the RCMP needed better oversight. If that’s the case, then Harper ceases to be a hideous amoral monster (at least in this regard) and simply becomes appallingly ignorant and incompetent:

The head of the RCMP admitted that Canada’s national police force neglected to keep tabs on hundreds of cases of serious misconduct committed by Mounties across the country for years. Commissioner Bob Paulson acknowledged that an access to information request by CBC News inadvertently revealed that not even senior leaders in the RCMP could say with confidence whether incidents of misconduct that include assaults, impaired driving and fraud were a problem in the force.

“You’re right,” said Paulson, who has been on the job just over a year. “The RCMP hadn’t been tracking until I got here and now we are. We’re tracking them all.”

(snip)

CBC News submitted the request in November 2008. It was delivered four years later in November 2012. An officer who handled the file offered an embarrassed apology, and explained the delay was due to the list having to be created from scratch.

It is hardly a secret that the RCMP has been judged and found wanting when it comes to both the conduct of its own officers and its ability to react to that conduct. There is perhaps no place where the truth of this is more widely known than in my own province of British Columbia. Officers are not only not being taken to task for their breaches of their duty (indeed, in many cases it appears that more people are punished for speaking up than for abusing even their fellow officers), but the force as a whole does not show much interest in even treating seriously those cases that do achieve widespread attention.

To glibly suggest that the correct action to take against abusive police officers is to report them to the police is to demonstrate either contempt for the very victims of crime whose interests this government claims to represent, or a lack of awareness of the relevant details of the issue so deep that it borders on criminal itself. Or both, I suppose, if one was inclined to be charitable in the other direction.

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*It is in fact much more accurate to say that I know several people who have been raped, but very few of them have talked to me about it.