Trust unworthy

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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  1. Stuart says

    IF your house gets broken into, and you go to the police, congratulations – you’ve wasted about half a day of your life to be told “We are unlikely to catch the guy, and even if we do, we’re not getting your stuff back. Have a nice day.”

    Basically the only reasons to call the police about your house getting broken into are (a) you’re a billionaire or (b) you have insurance and need the record to reflect that you called the police.

    Otherwise, involving them is nothing but a massive waste of your time.

  2. Other Point-of-View says

    Extremely well put Crom. It needs to be repeated that actually enforcing standards in police and legal conduct isn’t just to “shut the activists up”, it serves their own interests, and the interest of those they’re sworn to serve and protect.

  3. Dalillama says

    Similarly (despite my inclination to do so), we cannot simply chalk this up to the fact that the policing profession attracts ‘thugs’.

    There is something to the argument that police officers display a greater degree of thuggery than the general populace, but the problem is not ‘attracting thugs’ per se. Rather, I would say that the current culture of policing heavily normalizes thuggish behavior, and thus people who join the police force tend to become more thuggish over time. Granted, knowing this probably also attracts people who are already inclined towards that sort of thing towards the force as well, but even people who join with pure motives can easily slide towards engaging in or at least defending thuggish behavior when there are no consequences and a culture that encourages it.

  4. Desert Son, OM says

    Some interesting reads (by no means comprehensive) related to the question of authoritarian environments and personality expressions/self-identifications within same, including issues of trust:

    The original Stanford prison experiment:
    Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69–97.

    Some follow ups, including criticisms, questions, and expanded results discussions in the wake of Stanford prison experiment:

    Carnahan, T. & McFarland, S. (2007). Revisiting the Stanford prison experiment: Could participant self-selection have led to the cruelty? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 33, No. 5, 603-614.

    Reicher, S., & Haslam, S. A. (2006). Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 1–40.

    And the excellent (not directly related to the Stanford prison experiment, but relevant):

    Altemeyer, B. (2007). The Authoritarians. Available at

    Still learning,


  5. interrobang says

    I wonder how much of BC’s distrust in the police has to do with Robert Dziekanski and Robert Pickton…not to mention the unexplained feet that keep washing ashore out there.

    I know my local police force has done a really good job of alienating me, and as a middle-aged, middle-class white woman, I should be nearly in their core demographic. (Caveats are that up until recently, I used to be poor, and I’m far too far left to find police comfy.)

    When I was in my early 20s, a guy I’d never seen before in my life opened the door to my apartment using a key (!!) and walked in, just after I’d gotten out of the shower. When I called the police about it later, their response was (verbatim), “Yeah, we’ve had other reports about him doing that. What do you want us to do about it?”

    Fast-forward a few years, and I’m teaching at the local community college. A student of mine I hadn’t seen in a while (I assumed he’d dropped the course or dropped out of school) came to see me after class one day, to apologise for being absent for so long. I asked him what happened. He took off his toque, which he had pulled down low over his eyes, to reveal that his head (forehead, and eyebrows) were burnt bald, and told me that his psycho roommate had put chemicals in his shampoo, and that he’d spent weeks in the hospital with chemical burns, and had only escaped being blinded because he was able to get running water in his eyes quickly. The local police declined to do anything, on the grounds that it had happened in one of the local college residences, and was therefore “a student matter,” and that the student should go to the college campus police. The college campus police said that it was felony assault and that they didn’t have jurisdiction to handle something so serious, and that he should take it up with the city police. I offered to get him a lawyer or some help…

    So the local police really don’t like getting involved with certain things, for whatever stupid reason. Contrariwise:

    Fast-forward another few years, and I’m helping a friend save his job by sorting through all his papers looking for a letter the Children’s Aid sent him, clearing him of allegations of child abuse. Seems that some years before, a previous ex-boyfriend of the woman my friend dated for a while years before called the police and said something on the order of “Seven years ago, this guy might’ve spanked my kid!”

    Just recently, I was walking downtown with another friend (two casually-dressed, thirty-something white women) when a police van pulled up and a cop leaned out and said something that sounded to me like “Mumble mumble mumble gun?” Apparently, he’d said “Do either of you two ladies have a toy gun?” When my friend snickered slightly at the question, he yelled “THAT WAS A SERIOUS QUESTION!” at her, and she told him finally that neither of us had a toy gun, and what was that all about, to which he replied, “We had a report that some woman was walking around downtown with a toy gun.”

    So they’ll investigate when a drunken asshole calls up and says that someone might have spanked his kid seven years before, or when someone’s walking around downtown with a (perfectly legal to have) toy gun…? This is also the city that spent much of the 1990s chasing all the out gay people out of town on “I saw you in the same room as this guy we think might have known someone who might have done something” suspicion of creating “gay child porn” (really guys in their early 20s taking pictures of 16-18 year old boys, hardly child porn by any rational standards…), and prosecuting potsmokers while ignoring the Hell’s Angels and the Vietnamese Mafia moving in…

    As far as I’m concerned, the local police have their priorities so bass-ackwards they need to all be fired and replaced from the ground up.

  6. Other Point-of-View says

    You know interro, at first I took a perverse, gallows pleasure in knowing the New York City Police weren’t the only ones who seemed to find ways to be asshats.

    Then, I was depressed that that attitude is not, in fact, confined to New York.

  7. Dalillama says

    I hadn’t seen the Reicher and Haslam study previously, but the others have been a large part of my forming that belief, yes. I’ll have to check that one out.

  8. says

    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.

    Not to mention, not only is no screening perfect, but there are ways to know what is being screened for and how to evade such screening — which is the same whether you’re talking about asshole cops or airplane hijackers.

    Thing is, if we start removing the protections and privileges afforded to officers rather than just increase screening, it will have the effect of maintaining the screening they’re given at the outset. The difference is like choosing between making everyone in the airport security line take off their shoes or hiring more security guards to be on the lookout for suspicious behaviour.

  9. Rory says

    Desert Son, good call. The first thing I thought of was Zimbardo’s book ‘The Lucifer Effect,’ in which he talks about how the environmental factors in the prison experiment drove otherwise decent people to do terrible things, and how a similar dynamic was in play at Abu Ghraib.

    Even if the bad cops are successfully prosecuted, if the system rewards bad behavior, there will always be more bad cops.

  10. John Horstman says

    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.

    Oh, snap, I basically just posted the same thing in response to your post about the awesome grandmother locking the criminal officer in her basement. I think you may be one of my favorite people at this point, Mr. Cromwell (also, your use of gender-neutral pronouns makes me ridiculously happy every time I see it).

  11. says

    Heh. Glad it resonates with you.

    And yeah, you can’t be as big a fan of Natalie Reed as I am without becoming deeply skeptical about gender essentialism and the subtle ways in which language props up gender roles. Plus, “he/she” is a goddamn ridiculous way to use language.

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