We need the right kind of police

In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and the Black Lives Matters protests across the world, including Prince George, many people have called for defunding and/or dismantling police forces.

The better verb would be reforming and refocusing police forces and that process is long overdue.

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The irony is that there are likely a significant number of police officers, particularly those currently handling first response duties, that would welcome such reforms.

Surprise - cop TV shows and movies aren’t real life (including the “real” ones like Cops and Live PD). Those fictional depictions ignore the vast majority of daily police work – general surveillance, paperwork, court summons and responding to minor, non-violent emergencies.

Somehow, somewhere along the line, somebody decided that using a paramilitary organization made up of armed men and women to handle such mundane (but still important) tasks as resolving domestic disputes, pulling over speeders and dealing with disorderly individuals who are drunk, on drugs and/or have mental health issues made sense.

That’s the equivalent of sending in three people with baseball bats to deal with a spider in the bathtub.

Put another way, police officers have become emergency wards on wheels. 

Even before the pandemic, the Ministry of Health and Northern Health were spending money to divert mildly and moderately ill people from hospital emergency wards. The primary care clinic at Parkwood Mall in Prince George was set up to take on what are emergencies for the individuals involved but are minor issues to health care practitioners. 

Doing so leaves emergency doctors and nurses more ready to deal with actual life-and-death cases.

A similar approach to police reform would have similar results.

Unarmed officers should handle traffic enforcement, neighbourhood surveillance and non-violent calls, such as property crime.

Social workers, street nurses and doctors, mental health clinicians and conflict resolution negotiators should handle minor non-violent disturbances.

Armed RCMP officers should serve as backup in all of these circumstances, focusing primarily on rapid response to violent situations.

This is not some pie-in-the-sky dream that wouldn’t work in real life. Similar police reforms have been done in cities around the world. Camden, New Jersey, went through such a process seven years ago and has seen dramatic improvements across the board, particularly in the number of violent incidents.

Policing also needs to focus more on the far more numerous serious crimes that don’t involve car chases and guns drawn.

The RCMP needs more accountants and business and financial analysts to target white collar crimes like fraud and embezzlement. Too much work goes into prosecuting theft under $5,000 and nowhere near enough goes into nabbing the snakes in suits who steal millions from individuals, often wiping out their life savings in the process. Naturally, these officers would also target the money laundering used to fund organized crime.

The RCMP also needs more white hats - computer experts who use their skills in hacking and infiltrating secure networks for good - to target the incredible amount of crime that has moved online, from extortion and cyberbullying to child pornography and human trafficking.

In other words, we need more police officers, not less, but the right kind of officers using more varied skills to keep the peace and catch criminals, with the power of state-sponsored violence as the least desired option when all else fails.

The RCMP and other police forces also need to make one more essential internal change. 

The “band of brothers” culture needs to be dismantled in favour of transparency, accountability and whistle blowing. Officers who step forward to speak out against disgraceful conduct by a fellow member should receive commendations from senior staff and heartfelt thanks from their colleagues.

Simply put, nobody should be more adamant about weeding out the men and women who don’t deserve to wear the uniform than the other men and women who share that uniform. That means racism, harassment, excessive violence, obstruction (covering up for the wrongdoing of other officers) and other behaviours unbecoming of a member of the force should be met with the disdain and discipline they deserve, regardless of rank.

Reimagining police services would not only benefit police forces and the officers within them, it would lead to better community service, particularly for the vulnerable and minority populations that have too often – and for too long - been victims of abuse. 

Furthermore, having individuals from those populations serving in uniform, both on the front line and in leadership roles, would also dramatically improve policing.

The problems with policing are systemic so the reforms need to be systemic, as well, both within police forces and within the communities they serve.

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