Policing like most trends in society has often been described as being on a constant invisible pendulum, not necessarily evolutionary, but constantly moving to or away from its central role and the perception of that role in the eyes of the public.
In the 1950’s the cop was perceived as stern but benign face, but mostly fair. A neighbourhood icon, someone familiar with each and everyone, the good people and the troubled. Quiet justice was enforced, discreet sometimes to a fault. The cop was part of a Norman Rockwell painting, an emblem of a white middle class, protecting values of the then well-defined church and state.
The 1960’s brought on Woodstock, kids were dropping in or dropping out. An amalgam of life currents where below the surface, there was a brewing discontent, aimed at a war in Viet Nam, or more loosely, anything representing the establishment. Woodstock was the age of Aquarius, set in an unlikely location, a coming together on a bucolic dairy farm in up state New York.
But, it was also the year of Charles Manson and his followers. A vicious and random massacre of nine innocents– Aquarius now blending with Helter Skelter. The peace symbol tilted and perverted into a Nazi symbol.
Joan Didion in her book ‘ The White Album’ detailed this era when drugs were mixing with the Black Panthers; where a communal sense of well being was being curiously mixed with a sense of paranoia and detachment.
The pendulum had moved decidedly to the left. Cops began growing into the enemy. A thousand young Americans were dying every month in 1968 in Viet Nam generating protest after protest on streets and on campuses throughout the United States. During a political convention in Chicago violence erupted, cops now featured on the television screens of America beating on people mercilessly with their night sticks. The violence was now coming directly to the people through their television sets, aimed at the contented middle class as they ate their t.v. dinners on their couches and loungers.
The police represented “the man”, stalwart defenders of the establishment, tools of the rich, now being repeatedly termed racist, amid accusations of brutality. The disquieted older generation still sided with the cops for the most part, but in this Nixonian age public opinion would eventually swing to the young.
J Edgar Hoover continued building the FBI into a monolith, his iron-gripped tenure lasting until 1972. But, even this agency fell into distrust when it was learned that its agents were also gathering information on sometimes legitimate dissenters.
Policing on every front was now becoming suspect in its intent and motivations.
Extolling the virtues of remaining some distance from the bad influences of the U.S., Canada, with its hybrid French/English policing efforts began to grow in size and scope, but Canadian policing management and Canadian policies kept one eye trained to the goings on south of the border.
The RCMP now formed the nucleus of policing in Canada. It was a para-military organization from the outset where discipline and adherence to the orders of one’s superiors was sacrosanct, untouchable, never challenged, never questioned.
Gradually the influences of the neighbours to the south began to seep into the mindset of Canadians and thus policing managers. SWAT became ERT, Homicide cops became Serious Crime or Major Crime Units.
It was confusing too many, even those inside Canadian police groups, who tried to keep up with this somewhat copycatted version of policing during this growth process. Dissemination was followed by integration. Integration followed by de-centralization.
The RCMP was further confounded by trying to be all things to all people–mixed mandates, Provincial, Municipal and Federal responsibilities all overlapping in some governmental policy rubik’s cube.
Cops in Canada during the 1970’s were perceived as gentler, more open to argument or differing views than their American counter parts. They initially believed that the problems of the Chicago south side, or the Bronx could not be applied to the suburbs of Mississauga or Burnaby.
But then the downtown skids of Vancouver began to grow and expand; the Mafia took root in Toronto, Montreal and Hamilton. The Hells Angels were no longer restricted to Northern California and were not just a disenfranchised bunch of rogues.
Heroin, cocaine, and poverty began to drive the crime rates. The police both inside and outside management felt that they needed to become more like their American counterparts– more street cop, crime fighters, disciplined, and brothers in arms; the blue wall was being built brick by brick.
Crime rates, including homicides began to reach its zenith from the years 1968-1983.
It was into this generation that most of us, newly retired or about to retire baby boomers grew up and thrived. Solving the case was your reason for being, sometimes by any means; burning barns in Quebec to combat the FLQ a glaring example. You needed to be tough, you needed to exude combativeness, you always needed to get your man. It was during this time that Pierre Trudeau said “Just watch me” in instituting the War Measures Act and bringing in the army to the streets of Montreal. Even the politicians of the time had developed an edge.
Internally police officers gravitated to alcohol and cigarettes which were proscribed to combat the fear or what was witnessed on the street; a way to dull the observations of man’s inhumanity to man.
And you always respected the uniform, the symbol of what you stood for, some battles won, some lost, but it was us against them. You were proud to be standing in blue.
Then the pendulum began to swing left, just like in the U.S. Criticisms of the police and their policies began to emerge. The barn burning turned into the MacDonald Commission, which would eventually strip Security Service from the Mounties and lead to the formation of CSIS.
Problems were identified as originating with policing not being representative of the very population over which they held sway. Policing was portrayed as neanderthal, incapable of adapting to the new realities.
It was gradual, as the old guard kicked up a fuss over the hiring of females in the early 1970’s, but the theory being that women would bring a more humane and understanding attitude to the hardened police departments managed to hold sway. There was a loosening of physical height and weight restrictions to try and be realistic in terms of the physical differences between man and woman, or the different ethnicities. The Bill of Rights in the United States became the Charter of Rights in Canada. Some still saw it as a general slide into policing oblivion.
The pendulum continued to swing to the outward reaches of the left. Representation became inclusion in all its forms. Natural recruiting programs, since they were still failing, were replaced by affirmative action hiring, promotional incentives dangled in front of all who had the cultural genetics to claim to be one of the dis-enfranchised.
Police wanted to be one with the public. Not distant enforcers, but caring, understanding and educated in the cultural differences, and therefore as the theory went, trusted by these groups to the point that they were better able to deal with crime.
A subtle switch to crime prevention, crime enforcement now in the background to a myriad of social worker styled programs –community outreach, school liaison, bike patrols, and victim services.
The police now wanted to be loved. They are being ordered and taught to be more sensitive. They wanted to be seen as persons who suffered from the same problems as the general public, no longer the immovable rock of authority, but able to cry and empathize. We are people too and we need a hug from time to time.
If everybody grew to love the police, the job of policing would be better served–again, in theory anyways.
And more dramatically in terms of its effect, the Mounties decided that it was ok to be political in their ongoing battle to be sympathetic to all causes, whether it be gender, ethnic or life-style based.
Recently Surrey Detachment hung the Gay Pride flag at the detachment. It was met with some opposition, and even the City of Surrey declined to enter into this political fray in case of appearing to one-sided. The local Mounties did not see a problem.
In a recent circulating video a red serged Mountie, also in Surrey, became another one of the “dancing cops”; this Mountie lip syncing to Queen–mincing and strutting at the Gay Pride festival to the applause of those attending.
Many are beginning to feel brave enough to voice concerns over this latest evidence of the pendulum going too far. They point out that Section 37 (d) of the RCMP Code of Conduct states that the Mounties are to “avoid any actual, apparent or potential conflict of interest” and according to the deportment guidelines, Section 7.1 of the Code of Conduct ‘Objectives’ states that “members behave in a manner that is not likely to discredit the Force”.
Does this most recent caricature of a gay Mountie cross the line? it all depends on where you think the pendulum is right now.
Does the striving and quest for acceptance and love by all supersede the need to be neutral? Does it allow for such obvious pandering? The local RCMP justify it by saying “the RCMP lead by example in promoting diversity and inclusion”.
Management does seem to have lost the ability to see that this was a political supportive statement of a specific political group and its mandate, being still blinded and forever loyal to the government led need for “inclusion”.
Under this obvious strategy the obvious question that never seems to be asked is, does it work?
Did years of marching in the Pride parade in Toronto, aid or hinder the gay community criticism or aid in the investigation of the Bruce McArther killings? The Toronto Police , despite their loving efforts, were even disinvited to the parade this year. (Of course, the Toronto Police Chief vowed to work harder to understand why they have been disenfranchised. )
So the pendulum slows slightly in its grind to the left, but police management seems unable to change track, unable to move away from this politicization of their agency.
The overall effects of the politics of inclusion will probably be unknown or even measured in the coming years, as government rarely looks at things that don’t work; but cracks are beginning to show. Surrey RCMP faced protestors in the raising of the Pride flag and one could argue that the attempt to switch from the local RCMP detachment to a civilian Force is the result of people tiring of the current political model of the RCMP, that they just want safer streets.
In somewhat menacing fashion, right wing political populism is growing around the world, reflective of a changing mood, whether it be to immigration or justice.
There is evidence of growing crime rates after being at all time lows.
Some may argue that all this political pandering works, but only when political culture remains calm, when the public is economically content. That too may be changing. One only needs to look once again to south of the border.
The middle class is in jeopardy, being gradually forced to two ends of the wealth spectrum. Economics or more specifically, economic power, may be a better measure of the need and demand for policing change. Poverty breeds unrest. Unrest breeds violence and a call for stricter policing.
In Canada, the latest ‘Breaking News’ and the fodder for all amateur sleuths and commentary is the ongoing search for two Port Alberni teenage alleged “killers”. The focus on the police intensifies with each passing day.
What does the public want? Do they want empathy over their public safety being threatened? Do they worry about policing models of inclusion?
No, they want the two caught.
All the dancing in the world is not going to change that.
The pendulum seems to swing back in times of trouble, when the policing role gets stripped down to its barest essentials. The key is to let it return to some middle ground without going too far to the very dangerous right.
The public don’t want to love you, they want to respect you.
Photo courtesy of CTV and Global News – Some Rights Reserved