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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Rebuilding Trust with the OPS

The Stacey Bonds story just doesn't seem to be going away. Yesterday, acting chief of police Gilles Larochelle,in announcing that he’d called in the OPP to investigate further allegations of mistreatment at the hands of Ottawa police said, “We have a problem, no doubt about it." And the problem seems increasingly like it's more than just a PR battle.

I would like to say that I have been a great admirer of Chief Vernon White and his seemingly relentless attempts to ensure that The Ottawa Police Service remains connected and in service to Ottawa’s communities. In that light, I believe that the Chief now has a very difficult choice to make as a result of the evidence being released regarding the Stacey Bonds case. That choice will either reaffirm that police officers are members of the community, in service to it; or that police officers hold themselves apart from the community, living under different rules than the rest of us. For White this will also be a personal choice – loyalty to the community or loyalty to the tribe of police officers.

I look at it this way: If I and some friends had roughed up Ms. Bonds in a Mac’s Milk store in the same way the officers did in the police station and the whole thing had been caught on video, the police would have eagerly sought me out, caught me, put me in jail and charged me with physical assault, sexual assault, unlawful confinement and probably a host of other things I can’t think of.

Now here we have several police officers doing the same thing to Bonds. Ah, but you say they were just doing their duty, using legally sanctioned methods to enforce an arrest. Besides, she gets her day in open court to challenge her arrest and the actions of the officers. While Bonds did ultimately have her day in court to contest the officers’ actions, even a cursory review of the video tape evidence presented in court suggests inappropriate behaviour on the part of police officers and charges against her should have been stayed long ago. It should never have gone to court.

That said, the facts aired in court were that she was neither drunk nor behaving inappropriately. In fact, Ontario Court Judge Richard Lajoie found there was no reason for her arrest and detainment in the first place. Further, she did not resist arrest. However, as the station video depicts she was clearly roughed up with several knees to the back, strip searched, and part of her clothing removed in a manner that would be considered sexual assault in any other situation. When she was finally released from jail, she had to suffer the final indignity of wearing only the clothes torn up by police officers.

I am the last person to say we should encumber police with a mountain of rules dictating how to do their job. Clearly we empower them to do nasty things to bad people in the course of keeping us safe and ensuring the public peace. My point is that we do not however, empower police officers to do nasty things to whomever they please, whenever they want. The legal shield officers operate under does not exist when they do not operate within the context of the law. Therefore, when the judge found that there was no basis for Bonds' arrest, that the charges officers brought forward were trumped up, then all of the actions of the officers subsequent to that – the physical assault, the sexual assault, the forcible confinement – were no longer shielded and the officers have no special rights or privileges beyond those of any citizen.

So will Chief White act towards his officers in the same way he would act towards an ordinary citizen in the same situation? In light of the clear video evidence, the officers should be charged with the offenses they so clearly perpetrated. And then they can have their day in court. We do not accept that officers can kill a spouse, rob a store, or deal drugs even if they do so under the cover of being a police officer. Why should we accept the treatment of Bonds as being in the course of duty? Otherwise just being an officer, regardless of whether one is acting in a legally sanctioned manner, puts one in a different category of citizenship – separate, special, and above the law.

And as many have asked, where was the Crown Attorney in all this? Either the Crown Attorney doesn’t look at evidence in the cases being pursued and is therefore grossly negligent and should be removed, OR the Crown Attorney is aware of the evidence and is complicit and an accessory to the charges that should be laid against the officers. Further, as much as I commend the judgment and comments of Justice Lajoie in the Bonds case, why did he not issue summary bench warrants for the officers whose activities were so clearly beyond the pale of their legal authority. He was so acutely aware of the offensive behaviour of the officers he summarily dismissed all charges against Bonds and yet he failed to take action against the officers who committed those actions.

As a citizen, when it comes to the people in the justice system that I empower to wear and use a gun, to employ violence, to suspend my rights at times, and curtail my freedoms, I want to know that these people are of high moral and ethical character. I expect that they are capable of using judgment and good sense, and that I can lay my trust with them. I expect that these people will behave, not as an average person, but in fact better than the average.

In my own experience, the police officers that I’ve had the fortune of knowing have overwhelmingly exhibited this. So it is simply unacceptable to me that there may be officers that are free to behave with the level of abusiveness, thuggery and basic meanness that have been observed in the Bonds case. I would have to consider such behaviour as a social threat. These officers may only represent one or two bad apples, but as a citizen how am I to know which are the good ones and which are the bad?

James Morton, in an op ed piece on November 26th said that “to fix the problems the Bonds case uncovered will be difficult.” I disagree. It will be difficult only if the culture of the legal system continues to see its members as special, separate from the rest of us and somewhat above the law.

If the officers involved were currently facing charges for their behaviour, it is unlikely that others would repeat the same offense. However, the debate so far has been whether the officers involved will be reprimanded or possibly fired as if this was simply an internal HR issue within the Ottawa Police Service. It is not.

Even now, the tribe of police officers is closing ranks around the involved officers to support them. The union is going forward with legal action against Judge Lajoie for airing the video. But such responses only demonstrate that bad behaviour is tolerated by the police culture in which these officers live. Instead, the other officers should be shunning them for tarnishing the reputations of all officers. If these officers are not charged, then what citizens to believe? My only conclusion can be that the law does not apply to them.

Chief White therefore has to make a choice, and soon. Apply the law or not. The more he waits, the more he feeds the perception that officers are separate from the community, above the law, and that their first loyalty is to themselves as a tribe and not to the public. Chief White has invested much time and effort in trying to bridge the gulf between the police and the public. Now it’s crunch time. Was all the previous effort by the Chief just PR? Or did he mean what he said?