Professor Margaret Beare teaches both within York University’s Department of Sociology and at Osgoode Hall Law School. She previously served eleven years with the Department of the Solicitor General Canada and two as Director of Police Policy and Research. She has been involved in research related to policing for over 20 years and has published numerous books and articles on the topic.
This article is part of a series of interviews with advocates, legal thinkers, community organizers and academics on issues related to Canadian civil liberties produced by CCLA volunteers. All responses are the interview subject’s own, and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint or positions of the CCLA.
CCLA: As an academic and author who has conducted, and engaged in, extensive policing research, what sort of shifts, if any, have you noted with respect to policing practices in Canada over the years?
MB: It is hard to answer with much specificity given the variation across the country— Yes, policing in general has changed. The rhetoric regarding policing appears to constantly change from ‘strategies’ such as problem-solving policing, to community policing (or vice versa), to intelligence-led policing, to community mobilization, and now to what? To the extent that a police service uses the term ‘community mobilization’, it appears to mean that the police incorporate two quite different strategies—community policing via community liaison officers, but combined with hard edge enforcement. In Toronto’s ‘priority areas’ that hard edge takes the form of TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy) and the gangs & guns units. From the police perspective the combination is perfect—the ability to say they are engaged in community policing, while simultaneously engaged in what they tend to see as ‘real’ police work.
I would also argue that increasingly fairly ordinary crimes, including drugs, are referred to as being organized crimes. In Jean Paul Brodeur’s terminology, low policing crimes are increasingly treated like high policing offenses. The policing of these offenses tend to involve more undercover policing (stings, reverse stings, informants etc.) with the result that the policing activities tend to be less transparent. This may be one of the police responses to the greater visibility that is gained by the public via the public’s use of cameras, video recordings and perhaps a greater willingness to provide ‘counter’ interpretations of events that have involved the police.
A final change might be the appearance of our police—i.e. “militarization” in the sense of a general increase in weaponry—in addition to more powerful guns we see an increasing distribution of tasers, plus technology and equipment that gives the appearance of a well-armed or overly armed force. One concern is that the excess in tools has tended to de-value or replace the need to simply communicate, discuss, or negotiate with the public in any potentially confrontational situation. While de-escalation tactics are much in the press and recommended in situations involving person in mental crisis, a more widely advocated approach might also be appropriate.
CCLA: In your view, has the public’s perception of police and policing practices changed over time? If so, how?
MB: Survey literature will tell the story—or a version of the story—but it appears that while the police in Canada still have considerable support from the wider community members, there are polarized pockets of discontent and in some cases actual fear and distrust. I would argue that this is caused in large part by police practices such as the massive carding in select communities, together with what is also seen in some communities to be a lack of respect shown by the police.
There is also some sense that the public is perhaps less prepared to accept as fact what the police say without question. This may be due to what has become a fairly significant number of cases where the police version of an incident has proven to be at odds with the evidence revealed on videos taken by the public of the event. Charges against the police in the Toronto drug corruption case, the Dziekanski tragedy, and the death of Sammy Yatim, plus the Toronto Star article that emphasized police lying and perjury have perhaps served to make the public more cautious in trusting the police. Being first on the scene and having the media ‘usually’ in support of the police version of the events, fails when a video tells a very different story.
CCLA: How does the notion of the ‘thin blue line’ impact policing and interactions between police and members of the public?
MB: The ‘thin blue line’ serves as a significant barrier between the police and the public. There are two aspects to this. #1 We know for example that the police do not individually respect corruption or abusive behaviour by their fellow officers and yet the policing culture appears to demand that a united front protects those who violate either the law or rules of civility. This works against the policing organization—and general moral in those cases where the public then treats all police as being abusive or corrupt or racist—whatever the behaviour was that ‘appeared’ from the outside to have the full support of the organization. #2 The notion of the thin blue line standing against chaos and rampant crime hinders any factual discussion on how to reduce costs at a time when it is increasingly apparent that we can no longer afford the form of policing that we have had. That phrase, ‘thin blue line’, tends to suggest that any reduction in the resourcing—numbers of officers, or level of weaponry allotted to the police –would result in massive disorder and violence. The result is a threat—that few politicians will challenge.
CCLA: What is needed for effective policing in a country as diverse and multicultural as Canada?
MB: What is needed is leadership that will not tolerate different communities being treated differently. Some variation and ‘negotiated’ enforcement differences are ideal—but any variation should be negotiated with the people living in those communities not thrust upon them as if the police were an invading army. In Toronto for example, if citizens in the Annex would not tolerate being endlessly stopped, questioned, recorded, and possibly searched, then citizens in similar situations living in Jane-Finch should also be similarly treated. Community policing should involve community engagement—but community engagement requires respect in tone and words used in any interaction. Greater diversity should help—but diversity without firm, sanctionable policies against racist or biased policing will be insufficient.
CCLA: How accountable and transparent are policing operations in Canada? Are there certain jurisdictions within the nation where you believe police forces act in a more accountable or transparent manner? If so, which jurisdictions are they and what explains any differences?
MB: [It is] Hard to answer this question. The more marginalized the community—the less accountable and the less transparent the police operations. I belief accountability begins at the top in terms of the members quickly learning what behaviour will be tolerated and what won’t. Chiefs vary across the country and there have been several cases where truly enlightened Chiefs who were trying to make a difference and bring about some changes—in terms of greater accountability (operationally and fiscally) were in one way of another forced out of office—powerful police unions tend not to like change. In terms of accountability, while there are gaps and weaknesses we do have in place several regimes that target specific questionable acts by specific police officers. What we do not have is a non-political, independent, well-resourced body that monitors on an on-going basis policing trends and problems in general across the country and across the different levels of policing agencies.
CCLA: Given your research, what would you say is the most significant challenge facing Canadian police forces today and how can that challenge be overcome?
MB: In Policing Canada in the 21st Century: New Policing for New Challenges we listed a number of challenges and that list is about as good as any. Together these challenges result in a police function that is too expensive and cannot be sustained in the form that it currently operates:
- Changing Nature of Crime
- More complex
- Increasingly a-spatial (e.g., cyber-based crime)
- Evolving threats (e.g., environmental, terrorism)
- Changing Demand
- Aging population
- Urbanization of Aboriginal populations
- Growth in incidents involving mental illness
- Changing Technology
- Human Resources
- Aging and non-representative workforce
- Low job satisfaction
- Lack of necessary specialized skills
- Accountability problems persist despite wide ranging structures & efforts to improve them
- Performance metrics that fall short of measuring efficiency & effectiveness
The necessary response in order to meet some, if not all, of these challenges, involves rethinking policing and seeing that the ‘policing function’ really ought to include many segments of the society that do policing work but tend not to have the resources that the public police have. The above mentioned report refers to the ‘safety and security web’ that may need to be better coordinated so that the public police can work more effectively in partnership with other professionals, volunteers and government agencies. The police are correct when they say they are on duty 24/7 and therefore tasks fall to them that should be handled by other groups—such as responding in mental crisis situations when there are no medical professionals on duty who might be better equipped to respond.
Significant changes will however only occur when it becomes more obvious that the costs are too high, the sense of police legitimacy is not equally shared across all segments of the society, and more violence and/or corruption is exposed. Eventually, perhaps driven by some charismatic leader—Chief, Commissioner or leader of a different sort—awareness will develop that what is needed is a different policing workforce, with a different structure, different recruitment, different training, and a different view of their role in the society.