RIGHTS TALK Plumbing the ethos of civil liberties work






I have always had the suspicion that officers assigned to front desk duty were chosen by cunning supervisors because of their skills in obfuscation and disinformation. . . Guys like Crimmins are used to a cowering public: people who do exactly as he says because they are too intimidated to do anything else. I wasn’t part of that public.

-Michael Connelly, The Fifth Witness


Our police have an awfully difficult job. Stuck at the sharp end of the justice system, they are constantly forced to juggle the mutually antithetical roles of both The Helper and The Enforcer. And deal with the idea that the way they help is by enforcing. And accept that their job is to be society’s assigned contenders with all the problems the rest of us don’t care to address or are too frightened to.

            So they’re at the nexus of a lot of bad karma. And some of them thrive on the intensity, and can come to think of themselves as especially accomplished problem-solvers.

            Recently I was at a police station to meet an inspector. He having gone to retrieve his files, I set about adjusting the meeting-room table so the room would work better (Hey, c’mon here: I’m an architect, already.)

            Suddenly a detective bursts through the door and starts yelling that this is his home and that’s his stuff and I’m to drop everything and leave everything alone.

            I should have said, “I am your employer. I am one of the owners of this building and everything in it. I am pleased to have you use this equipment in pursuing your duties for us. But I am not pleased to have you attack me in this manner.”

            Instead I just meekly asked if he had been watching me on video. He had.

Discussing his behaviour later with his commander, we explored the idea that police work can lead to a coarsening of the character, that spending too much time with lowlife can lead to a loss of acuity in discerning who’s a “hard citizen” and who’s a “soft citizen.” And then everyone gets treated rudely and abruptly. And like they’re a problem.

The Toronto Star posits a secret felony: Contempt of Cop. This is what gets Stacy Bonds stripped to the waist in Ottawa station and young men paraded naked in front of Toronto policewomen: they are not sufficiently obsequious when they encounter the police.

And police work is a lot easier if the public is intimidated. There are many tactics for engendering this state of mind.

Why do our police assume a quasi-military form of hierarchy? Simply, the martial arrangement carries with it the implication of overwhelming heavy-duty violence on call, even though it doesn’t exist.

The use – the overuse – of military-style titles is revealing, too. Why are we expected to address our police as, say, “Inspector Theremin,” when we don’t call our other civil servants anything like “Recreation Director Crumhorn?” I certainly don’t want to be “Architect Ferguson” all the time, and to have to address others in such a stilted, groveling manner. Shouldn’t we all just be “Mr” or “Ms” to each other and drop the power-honorifics?

Remember how, when you used to be stopped in your car it was, “Yes, Constable?” That would probably be considered impertinent now; title inflation requires a “Yes, Officer?’ Too many officers, not enough workers.

And uniforms. It makes sense that front-line constables – sorry, officers – should wear distinctive livery to maintain their visibility and safety. But no-one else needs them.

So let’s talk fashion a bit.

Have you noticed how everyday uniforms in places like Toronto are looking more and more déclassé? I believe cops there first started wearing meshback ball caps as part of a strike and are they ugly. They make the people who are the repository of our morals and help and strength look like lame homies from the hood who ought to have their trousers dragging halfway down their rear ends. This does not engender respect or even, oddly, intimidation. Unless you find LA gangs intimidating.

What is intimidating is the striking hyper-militarization of our forces’ turnout over the last fifteen years. Everywhere you turn there’s some gang of black-clad helmeted assault-rifled laser-spraying SWATguys – it’s always guys . . . - sneaking along a wall. Is this army envy? Boys playing with their gadgets? The hegemony of video games? It’s not needed, and it doesn’t look like people who are protecting their society. It looks like an attack.

Blue was once the colour of responsibility. Now it’s the all-black for everyone. At G20, our helping forces were dressed as Darth Vader robots, encased and hidden and so automaton-like and unseen that they felt they could just break the law with impunity. Go ahead: forget about  enforcing the law, just break it.

How refreshing that Toronto’s Occupy cleansers took on bicycle cop yellow windbreakers which, despite a certain whiff of the hazmat suit, gave them the insouciant air of friendly crossing guards.

Friendly cops are good. Like all our other civil servants - like all our employees right up to the prime minister - they will grow as they take to heart the venerable dictum: “You are not in charge. You are in service.”




Peter Ferguson works from Ontario’s Beaver Valley at pferguson@cablerocket.com. His views are not necessarily those of the CCLA.