Tuesday, November 29, 2016


Nation, we woke up this morning to hear that, for the second time in a week, a resident of Calgary was shot and killed by police.

We don't know what happened in this case. It's being investigated, as are all police-involved shootings, by the provincial ASIRT (Alberta Serious Incident Response Team). They will ultimately report on their findings, including whether or not the use of force was justified in this incident. It would be inappropriate for any of us to speculate further until that work is complete.

However, the fact remains that this is the second police-involved shooting death in a week in our city. The 10th police-involved shooting in 2016. The fifth one resulting in death. I think we're perfectly justified in wondering "what the hell is HAPPENING out there?"

Being a police officer is a brutally tough job. Mental health and relationships suffer terribly. We pay cops a comfortable, but by no means means lavish, salary to go out there and see the kind of stuff on a regular basis that would positively RUIN any of us emotionally, if we saw it once. They walk around being targeted for violence and abuse just by virtue of the uniform they wear. And make no mistake: they know what they're getting into. Nobody ever graduated onto a big city police force thinking their day-to-day was going to be just like Mahoney in Police Academy or Drebin in Police Squad.

But the fact that they're making an informed choice to go out there and be exposed to this doesn't make them automatically at fault any time something goes wrong. Nor does it make them universally laudable as heroic. Some law enforcement people do it because it's a paycheque, and in their estimation it beats stocking shelves at Home Depot. Some do it because they like the power that comes from the badge and the uniform. The screening that applicants go through weeds out most of the people who just get off on telling people what to do and carrying a sidearm, but a few squeak through. Their fellow cops know who they are. At the end of the day, though, we can't assign derision or heroism to the entire force - just like any large group, there are good ones, and bad ones.

But with the relationship between police and citizens so publicly strained in the United States these days, it's natural that Canadians would start to wonder about their own local police forces. A recent survey found that Calgarians were far from universally loving their police service, with 39% indicating approval. This is in stark contrast to the Police Commission's own survey, which found 95% approval just a month later. Clearly, someone's asking the wrong questions.

Add to this recent revelations about bullying and harassment within the Calgary Police Service, and the ensuing public pissing match between members of the Police Commission, and it's no wonder that Calgarians are confused about what's going on and who's in charge.

There are clearly problems here that need resolving.

So who is responsible?

The Chief of CPS? The Police Commission? City Council? The Mayor? Alberta's Solicitor General?

Society is looking askance at police - perhaps more than it has in centuries. Whether it be local police departments or the RCMP, people have started to assume the worst of cops rather than the best. I don't know if it's popular media, both news and entertainment, that's putting ideas into people's heads. I don't know if it's the colour of the police cars, or the uniforms, or the militarization of the police. Maybe it's all of those things.

What I know, is that people are today seemingly far more likely to take a swing at a cop, or threaten a cop, or yell insults at a cop, than I remember even back in the late 90's. I recall watching 4 cops arrest someone who was acting belligerently at a transit station back then, and the prevailing opinion on the platform seemed to be that the guy got what was coming to him, and that the force being used was appropriate. "You swing at a cop, you're going to get your ass whipped" was one comment I still remember hearing from a guy standing next to me. Hell, the Chris Rock Show, which ran in the late 90's, even put together a handy video entitled "How To Not Get Your Ass Kicked By The Police". And it was funny. We all laughed.

But today?

Today, people stand around watching police detaining someone, whip out their phones and yell "pathetic" at the cops. They post those videos to the internet with names like "PROOF OF POLICE BRUTALITY", encouraging all their online contacts to think of cops as nothing but goons, unworthy of respect in all cases. Today, they call them names and criticize them for not taking on a suspect "one on one" - as though there's any universe where a cop, with a belt full of weapons INCLUDING a gun, would be making the best possible decision for public safety by fighting someone one-on-one (you really want that cop getting his ass knocked out, and a violent person to be able to use all that gear on anyone they want?).

IS it brutality? Sometimes, yes.

IS it pathetic? Sometimes, yes.

ARE there bad cops? Absolutely. Yes, there are.

And there are also GOOD cops. Doing their best to keep us safe, so we can go on the internet and bitch about the way they do their jobs. And all they want to do is make it home safe at the end of the day so they can kiss their kids goodnight.

In almost every instance, whenever there's a public incident or complaint, the Chief comes out and defends his officers. Maybe we want him to be more neutral. Or maybe that's what he's supposed to do. Maybe his role is as an advocate for the officers and the organization, and we need someone like the Chair of the Police Commission, or an actual hired Police Commissioner, to hold the Chief and his officers to account on behalf of the civilian public, so we can hear both sides, and so we can feel like complaints are being taken seriously. Maybe there are better ways to govern the police. Maybe police human resources issues, like suspensions and firings for cause, need to be public rather than "in camera", in the interests of building public trust. Or maybe that's the worst idea ever. Maybe there are better ways for them to work with the community, and make us all feel like they're on our side, instead of 48% of Calgarians feeling like they're Bullies in Black, or Photo Radar Operators who don't care about actual crime.

At the end of the day, we need police. We can't handle ourselves. We prove that every chance we get.

But we have to - ALL of us have to - do a better job at helping them help themselves, so they can then help us.

We're all in this together.


Jim McCormick said...

Joey, I respect what you have written.

I do believe you have highlighted two distinct situations. The first, the internal CPS culture. We, as the citizens of Calgary, have a right to be questioning that with what has come to light. I know a couple of the members of the Police commission and do have a level of confidence that it will be scrutinized heavily and investigated thoroughly. I await the results and corrective action.

The second is what is actually happening on the streets. And it is this aspect that, with what you have written, carries more of a singular undertone that all of these incidents hold a high level of culpability on the part of the officers. And it is that that I will challenge.

There are a number of matters that impact the behaviors and attitudes of our citizens today, particularly when confronted by the 'authorities', including our police officers. There is the lack of respect for authority, first and foremost (and yes, the issues noted above influence that). There is the angst, the stress, the futility that exist at varying levels within our population that, I submit, leads to anti-social behavior that would bring people into contact with police. But then there is the drug trade, the gang involvement. We still need to put some responsibility on the individuals who are on the other end of these incidents. They are not always blameless, despite what their mothers and their friends might bleat to the media. And do these incidents not reinforce that, when faced with an officer, that one co-operates? That belligerent behavior has significant consequences?

Yes, I still respect and admire those who step forward as first responders--police, fire, emergency medical personnel. It is not a career path that I believe I have ever had the fortitude to be successful in. But when we add in the incremental societal influences that we have today, it is even more challenging. And to pile on suspicions that they are all just itching for a chance to pull that billy club, that tazer or the Glock is not realistic or helpful.

Enlightened Savage said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Jim.

I didn't mean to imply that the police are objectively culpable for many of the reported incidents we see splashed across the headlines. The reality is, we just don't know what is happening in those moments before a gun gets drawn, or a taser deployed. The reality of what was about to happen WITHOUT that intervention on the part of the officer might be staggering. We read the headline "Cop shoots suspect". What we don't read - and maybe never hear at all - is what that suspect was about to do. Or, at least, what the officer believed they were about to do (pulling something that looked like a weapon, etc).

My point was simply that: We don't know. And if we don't know, and if our fellow citizens don't trust what the present leadership is telling them, then we need to find a way to restore that trust. The fact that there aren't any apparent gangs on my street impacts my perception of how safe the world around me is. I hear people wondering why cops wear vests because it "makes them look like soldiers". I've never heard an officer wonder about why they need the vests - because every officer understands very well the vest can be the difference between making it home or not, and my life in the suburbs doesn't give me any reason to even THINK of that as a possibility.

Whether the blame for an incident falls on an individual officer, the service as a whole, the suspect, or a social media culture where information is provided without context, we need to get a handle on what is going on - and that will take a willingness on the part of all to actually hear everyone's point of view, and a related willingness to share what we're all truly feeling.