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.”


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.


  1. lirael_abhorsen says

    There are so many people who think the answer to everything is “just report it”. Well-meaning friends and family say this to people who have been sexually assaulted all the time.

    When it comes to police misconduct, like you said, the mind boggles. It’s like people can’t imagine why someone might reasonably not trust an agency that abused them and has more power than they do to respond well to an allegation that it did something bad.

    That said, is there any organization that is willing to take and pursue police abuse complaints for little or no cost? I’m thinking here of the role that the wonderful National Lawyers Guild (NLG) sometimes plays for protests in the US, except going on all the time, for a city, or for a province’s First Nations population, or something like that. This is not a substitute for proper civilian review. I’m just thinking of what a useful resource the NLG is in the context in which it operates – I have reported police misconduct to them that I would have been afraid to report to the police themselves.

    “…in the absence of robust and meaningful civilian oversight I am obligated to view all officers with suspicion.”


  2. lirael_abhorsen says

    Semi-tangentially, your mention of your positive experiences with the Vancouver PD, plus the fact that this post is about police abuse, prompted me to go back and read this post (trigger warning for police misconduct and sexual assault for anyone clicking that link), which I remembered from when you first wrote it. And, thank you. I’ve been a street medic in NYC (infrequently, as I live in Boston), and will do so again, and I’ve met Jose, the street medic mentioned in the first pullquote. The NYPD often target street medics; everyone who medics in NYC knows it (I was assaulted by them my first time in the city, fortunately without injury). I know one medic there (woman of color) who wears a motorcycle helmet when she’s medicking. Even though you wrote that post some nine months ago, rereading it gave me a tremendous feeling of relief – “Someone takes this stuff seriously!”

  3. maudell says

    One thing you notice when you are victim of abuse from the police is that the vast majority of people (friends included) believe that you must have done *something* to provoke the abuse.

    I used to live in the DTES of Vancouver and a friend and I got pepper sprayed by the police directly in my eyes for walking out of a restaurant while the police was arresting someone (that I did not know) on the other side of the door. I know better than to confront the police, so I grabbed my friend (I was helped by my contact lenses, he wasn’t so lucky) and we went to the washroom to try to remove some of the mace (water is a bad idea!). While they sprayed us, the guy they were arresting fled (very productive intervention). When we got better, I calmly and respectfully asked what was the reason for the spraying. Their answer: “There’s a paddywagon on the way. If you keep talking we’re taking you in.” So I shut up and left. My friend lost the job he had gotten the week before because his eye and ear got seriously damaged.
    We called the police complaint office. Our mistake was obviously being in a “bad” neighbourhood. After he found out, the officer on the phone said: “I’ve been in the police force for 25 years, and these sorts of things just don’t happen.” And he did not take our complaint. And we just gave up.
    I told the story to a few friends, and they usually think I did *something*. They still don’t think it’s deserved, but I must have provoked the intervention somehow. I’m guilty of thinking the same when people tell me their story too, sometimes. I think we all have this inclination to believe there is some sort of fairness to the world to stay mildly sane.
    Regardless, from my personal experience, it seems like I was a lucky one. I have been a witness of blatant police abuse (yes, usually done to aboriginal people) in the DTES. The police is safe. When you beat on people who are already down, they usually don’t have the strength or resources to do anything about it.

    [note: it only takes a small percentage of abusive police officers to create a lot of abuse. I think the majority of them strive to be just (which doesn’t prevent certain biases)]

  4. freemage says

    As a Chicagoan, this post has serious resonance for me–in particular the bit about how ‘it never happens to me’ meaning I have to actively listen to reports when it happens elsewhere (in addition to your noted privileges, I’m also white, and on top of that, have an ID in my pocket that says I work for one of the media outlets in town [more impressive than it sounds, just an office clerk–but they don’t know that]–no cop in his right mind would be anything BUT courteous to me, even if he was one of the ones who has no problem dropping a dime-bag in the pocket of a suspect so he can “find” it again during a frisk).

    And unless you’ve got your head up your kiester, it’s impossible to be unaware of the fact that Chicago PD has serious issues in this regard. We KNOW (as in, “established in a court of law”) that within my adult lifetime, there was an actual torture operation going on in part of the city to obtain wrongful convictions. We know the cops have forged evidence, obtained confessions with tactics that would’ve been at-home in Abu Grahib, abandoned their duty to care for citizens in distress, and generally been all-around asshats, often with fatal consequences. And yet, the Union fights every attempt at installing accountability measures. (Honestly, this is one of the few places where I utterly despise a union’s position.)

    And the worst part is that several studies have shown that one effect of, say, recording interrogations and arrests is that false allegations drop precipitously, because the perps know they can be actively disproven. So the GOOD cops would benefit as well as getting rid of the bad ones.

  5. sambarge says

    A few years ago, OPP officers in Sioux Lookout Ontario tasered a 14 yr old girl who was being held in a cell at the OPP detachment there. The girl suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and was intoxicated herself. She was placed in a cell where she laid down on the cot and committed the inexcusable crime of picking paint chips off the wall.

    An Ontario Child Advocate, who viewed the video of the tasering said:

    “When I saw the tape, we had a young person who was peeling paint off the wall of a police holding cell with her fingernail and she was quiet and on a cot,” he said. “And our estimation, the use of a Taser was not proportional to the need to protect, I guess, the paint on the wall.”

    Not surprisingly, the OPP determined that the officers responded with appropriate force. Because, apparently, next to lethal force is an acceptable response to peeling paint chips off a wall in a cell.

    I would never tell a First Nations woman to ‘go to the police’ for help after being victimized and feel my job was done. Harper is a f*cking turd.

  6. lirael_abhorsen says

    @maudell You had some highly unusual contact lenses. Normally having contact lenses dramatically increases how much pepper spray sucks (as the spray gets trapped behind them). And water should be fine for pepper spray if you’re using a proper flush (if you don’t, you can in fact end up burning your face, getting pepper spray in your nose and ears, etc, which is true for anything else you might flush with too). For future reference, in case anybody needs it, here’s how to do a proper flush.

    Completely agreed about people thinking you must have done something to provoke the abuse. Even if you have photos or video people will be saying “Well, we don’t know what happened before that photo was taken” or “Well, we don’t know what happened before the start of that video,” or “There was a second where somebody was in the way of the camera, and maybe during that time the person did something horribly provocative.”

    Getting back to the OP – combine that mind-set with the amount of victim-blaming that sexual assault victims get anyway, and racism, and it’s a recipe for victims not being taken seriously.

  7. wondering says

    I’ve never lived in Vancouver, but I’ve visited many times. I still remember hanging out on Granville street and seeing a group of cops take down a drunk who was jumping on cars and beating the shit out of him with clubs. Then they started clearing the streets of everyone who had been a witness. I refused to go, saying that I was “waiting for the bus”, as I was next to a bus stop. Others said the same and they jammed us into the bus shelter in retaliation. We were lucky – it could have been worse.

    This was in the early 90s before cell phones – these days those cops would have been confiscating them.

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