Lessons in the testimony of James Comey….when politics becomes part of policing

Policing, throughout Canada, both in our Federal and our Municipal policing agencies is increasingly political, and it may be  proving detrimental to our form of government and the ability to do objective investigations.  Everything from recruiting and hiring, to what is being investigated, or how it is being investigated has become subject to the vagaries of a leadership which often cowers and acquiesces to its political masters.

Some would argue that this has always been a problem in our country, that this is nothing new. Others argue that the abject adherence to the desires of the political leadership has reached a more dangerous precipice.

Historically, we have adopted in this country the Westminster system, a system or division of powers where the model of governance forms around three distinct branches; the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. It has always been felt that the police fall on the judiciary side of the branches, and in terms of governance and accountability, the police are meant to remain above partisan politics. They are hoped to be apolitical and autonomous, above the fray so to speak. The public in our democratic system, need to have faith in the police, and their ability to do their jobs immune from political influence, otherwise there is the potential for chaos. As stated by  Robert Peel   “the police are the public and the public are the police”

So there are three distinct functions within our government; those that make the rules or laws (the legislative bodies and the executives of those bodies), those  that enforce those laws(the police), and those that are there to settle the disputes (the judiciary).  We run into trouble in this country when these levels get blurred, when politicians exert control over what or how rules are enforced, or begin to dictate how those police agencies are run.

This is not to say that the police should not be accountable, they should, and it can be argued  even more so than they are now. But they should be accountable for monies, operations, and their administrative management, not for determining investigative worth, or the focus of those same investigations. The judiciary are in place to hold the police responsible,  for the  proper enforcement of the laws, and the use of proper investigative techniques. This creates the needed counter balance. The police are on the judiciary side of the scales of justice, in counter balance to the executive and legislative branch. One balancing the other.

Which brings me back to former FBI director Comey, and his most recent testimony to the Senate Committee investigating Russian influence in the American election. Mr Comey is articulate, intelligent, and polished. His testimony to the Committee was thorough, and believable, which of course will hold problems for the bombastic Mr Trump, who has now established himself as a proven and often compulsive liar. However, it also underlined to me how Mr. Comey was not head of the FBI because of an illustrious investigative career with the FBI, but for the fact that he is good at playing the political game.  His “leak” to the NY Times after being fired, was a blatant example of how much of a politician he had become, as he admitted that he did the leak to help force the appointment of a Special Prosecutor. As much as I admired Mr Comey and his testimony, that was a shocking admission. This was all of course after Mr Comey came under fire for announcing the further investigation into the Hilary Clinton email fiasco. Mr Comey on both occaisons jumped with both feet into the political arena.

It is becoming more obvious in this country that heads of police offices, whether Provincial, Federal or Municipal, on many levels, are no different than Comey; they are playing the political game, they are appointed because of their political adherence to the politics of the day. They survive, get promoted, and reach the top ranks not because of their investigative or enforcement prowess, or because of their integrity, but because they reflect and mirror their political masters of the day.

We are about to have a new Commissioner of the RCMP appointed. So the Liberals have now appointed ex-Premier and staunch Liberal, Frank McKenna to head a selection committee of up to 10 people. Is there any doubt that this person will reflect the wishes or policies of Justin Trudeau?  In an article by Allison Crawford, quoting from an internal memo by Ralph Goodale (Solicitor General)the Liberals are pushing for someone versed in sexual harassment, bullying,  workplace relationships, mental health issues, and post traumatic stress. Lofty goals, and not necessarily wrong in their intent, but investigations and the ability to lead investigations, or to be adequately schooled in the law and the operational problems facing the RCMP seems to have been slid to the back burner.

It is highly unlikely that whoever is chosen will be appointed because of their abilities proven in the police environment; it is far more likely that they will be “representative”, reflective of the Liberal principles and someone who will protect, support, and promote the Liberals politically.

It is a rather small step to think that who and what gets investigated becomes something determined by the politicians, or at the very least under the influence of the political elite.  And when the politicians decide who or how to enforce the law, you are indeed in very dangerous territory.

If you don’t think that it is possible, ask Mr Comey, who was being told to close off the investigation into  Flynn by the President of the United States. Look back to Nixon in the U.S. or if you prefer Canadian examples,  how about Harper and his executive assistant in the Mike Duffy investigation, when Vic Toews oversaw the RCMP and even monitored correspondence between the RCMP and government.

If you combine these thoughts with the recent talk of a civilian oversight for the Mounties (again, not absolutely bad), the ability for a police department to be unduly influenced by their political bosses because even more of a possibility.

Did you know that the commanders of RCMP detachments are often needed to be approved by the local government, so that the Mayor of Surrey for instance has a say in who leads the local detachment. Without their approval they are unlikely to get appointed. In a place like Vancouver, or Victoria,  the Chief of Police is appointed by the government of the day.  On what criteria do you think they would base their decision? When Jim Chu retired as Vancouver Police Chief, he was appointed to the Translink board, clearly another political appointment, and I am not so sure Mr Chu was a transportation expert. Do you think Mr Chu may have been loyal to the local politicians when he was the Chief? It is a very fine line to walk between accountability and subservience.

It goes even lower than this in the rank structure. In many of the recent RCMP appointments, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity are clearly playing a significant role in promotions and advancements. Of course it is all sold as being “reflective” of the community, but when does being reflective turn into pandering to special interest groups.

This is not to say that any of these appointments are bad, or wrong, but they need to be scrutinized as they open up the question as to where the loyalties of these chiefs or these officers will lay if they are ever in a position like Mr Comey found himself. The police need to exude objectivity, we need to trust in their ability to be fair, open, and not influenced by outside forces.

We have lost sight of the 1st goal of policing, to enforce the laws. Not to make judgements or to show favour to particular groups of society, but to enforce them in an objective and non-political manner. The rash of charges against white officers in shootings of blacks, again in the U.S., is clearly politically charged. There is a demand for charges from Black Lives Matter and similar groups, and lo and behold charges in these cases are growing astronomically. The fact that most are being acquitted by the judicial system doesn’t get enough mention, but there is little doubt that political groups are influencing the politicized District Attorney system in the United States.

By way of a Canadian example, clearly one of the Liberal platforms is indigenous rights and reconciliation. To that aim, financial accountability by these groups has been specifically lessened under Trudeau. The Liberal Justin Trudeau government reversed Harper in the need for the Bands to show their financial records. The compliance rate for these documents has now dropped further, and the potential for fraud has greatly increased.

Do you think that investigations of fraud on these very same Reserves will ever be brought into the investigative light under a new Commissioner of the RCMP, a Commissioner who in seeking this promotion and who has been told that he or she must be more incorporative of the indigenous groups? It would seem unlikely.

It is subtle influence, probably unspoken and unmentioned, but it is there non the less.

This is all to say that there is evidence building in Canada that policing has and is becoming more political, more subjective than objective, and more guided by special interests. There is a greater danger looming in that the public will lose faith in their police; that they will come to believe that their agency is politically motivated, not in search of the truth, but in search of a mandated truth. A politically tainted truth.

When leaders such as Trump emerge, we are reminded that there is a need for preserving unswerving integrity. We must be reminded as Julian Assange said in a recent documentary that “most principled people don’t last very long”, and therefore we too are susceptible. We must always be on our guard for breaches in an always fragile democratic system, a system with its separation of powers and governance that binds our democracy together. We, often docile Canadians think we are above such things, or immune to impeachable politics.  Do we think that any politician who caters to special interest groups, or represent a certain constituency that they are not open to unduly influencing policing authorities to bend in their favour.   As Sandra Day O’Connor the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice said:  “It matters enormously to a successful democratic society like ours that we have three branches of government, each with some independence and some control over the other two”. We need to be cognizant of our history, learn from that history,  and be reminded by the lesson of Mr. Comey that politics and investigations of integrity do not mix.

Photo and Caricature Courtesy of DonkeyHotey via Flickr Commons some Rights Reserved

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