A study in contrasts

A few weeks ago I opined on the riots in London, and contrasted the police reaction there to the one here in Vancouver following our own riots. That story is continuing:

Prime Minister David Cameron has defended courts for handing out “tough” sentences for those involved in the riots across England. The barrister told the BBC “ringleaders should receive very long sentences” but warned “there was an issue of proportionality” over the way people already before the courts had been treated. The PM said it was good that the courts were sending a “tough message”. Speaking in Warrington, he said: “It’s up to the courts to make decisions about sentencing, but they’ve decided to send a tough message and it’s very good that the courts feel able to do that.”

Meanwhile, in Vancouver:

Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu is defending the pace of criminal investigations into Vancouver rioters, saying investigators are moving slowly because authorities want to make sure they can secure convictions. “Even though we acknowledge the frustration of those who wish these suspects were already in jail, and we hear and share your frustration, there are many reasons why we must proceed at this pace,” Chu told reporters Wednesday at a news conference. His comments came as critics point to swift sentencing seen in Britain in the wake of a sweeping series of riots in recent weeks.

First of all, it’s important to state unequivocally that the Vancouver riots are not comparable to the London riots. The issues that underlie the widespread reckless smash and grab in the UK are not represented in the 5-hour orgy of violence that happened here following the Stanley Cup final. Looking for a common thread between what sparked the two separate occasions is probably a waste of time. My intention here is to contrast the response by law enforcement in the two situations that, from a surface perspective, appear similar (people rioting).

I was critical of David Cameron’s response to the riots – right-wing chest thumping might be psychologically satisfying, but it is not the kind of evidence-based response we need to see that justice is done and further riots do not happen. While I am still critical of his approach, he is not really the focus of this story. It is now the judicial system that is engaging in a dick-measuring contest to show how “tough” they can be. As I’ve opined before, being “tough” on crime doesn’t do anything but appease the masses thirsty for blood. It’s a short-sighted response that finds its origin in our lizard brains – they hurt us so let’s hurt them back. While understandable, it leads us to react disproportionately and emotionally, when reason and logic are at their most crucial:

BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman said the sentences being handed out across the country for offences of dishonesty such as theft, burglary and receiving stolen goods, suggested there were disparities between courts. What the public was seeing may just be a “distorted version of the normal system”, our correspondent said. In another case, David Beswick, 31 from Salford was sentenced to 18 months in prison for handling stolen goods. Max Hill QC, vice-chairman of the Criminal Bar Association said it was not the job of judges “to deliver a political message on behalf of the government” when passing sentence but part of their role was to identify “serious aggravating features that elevate the crime beyond the ordinary”.

When the lawyers, intimately involved in the criminal justice system, are criticizing your policy, it might be a rebuke you want to take seriously. I said as much this morning.

In matters of criminal justice, it is far too easy to get swept up in the bloodlust of the crowd. Britain is certainly modeling such a reaction for the whole world to see. Vancouver’s response has been far more measured. They are concerned with making cases based on solid evidence, rather than appealing to cries for swift punishment. Why Jim Chu is choosing this route, and whether he will survive the next election cycle for his job, are open questions. I am happy and proud to live in a society where deliberate care is taken to avoid locking up the wrong people, or letting the right people get away on technicalities due to improper evidence.

Now if only we’d apply that same work ethic to charging the financiers that did far more damage to the economy than all the looters in the world could hope to accomplish. Then we’d really be getting something done.

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  1. says

    At least we don’t directly elect police chiefs or members of the judiciary in Canada. It allows for that impartial step back. I don’t think too many politicians are calling for his head yet, so he should be safe.

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