Cover Story

Law and order on the march

Michael Posner October 2 1978
Cover Story

Law and order on the march

Michael Posner October 2 1978

Law and order on the march

Cover Story

Michael Posner

They buried Harry Snedden with honor last week. They placed his cap upon a Canadian flag, which lay across his coffin, and from the crowded pews of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in suburban Toronto they sang him to rest, privately measuring the

meaning of his death. Afterward, in a solemn processional, they marched— 1,100 policemen, six abreast, their shoes bright with polish, their hands gloved in white—through the very streets Constable Snedden had patrolled and not far from where he had been shot, with his own gun, while trying to break up a domestic dispute.

At 22, fit and industrious, Harry Snedden had contemplated a long career in his chosen profession and, for his family and friends, his death had the awesome absurdity of random fate. But police forces everywhere viewed it as one more justification for their campaign to restore capital punishment. In fact, Snedden died less than two weeks after a national gathering of police chiefs had urged a federal referendum on the death penalty and only days after Justice Minister Otto Lang and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau—once regarded as firm abolitionists—had themselves mused out loud about just such a possibility.

Ottawa’s apparent turnabout on the issue may have stunned party loyalists, but it plainly tickled the police. “Thank God,” sighed AÍ Evelyn, president of Toronto’s 5,300-member police association. “Let’s have a referendum. There’s no doubt in my mind that the majority wants capital punishment.”

There is no doubt, either, that on the hanging question—as on many others— Canada’s cops have become increasingly outspoken. “We’ve had to,” explains Halifax policeman Joe Ross, the militantly pro-hanging vice-president of the Canadian Police Association. “There’s not a week goes by that police aren’t shot at. We have to be more political—for our own protection.”

And so they are. From St. John’s to Surrey, the nation’s 65,000 policemen are making themselves heard as never before. Frequent conclaves, media blitzes and the long parade of appearances before legislative committees have given this country’s most visible minority a new and sometimes disturbing dimension. The newest centurions are not only peace officers, but lobbyists, influential shapers of opinion.

“Those who would enforce the law are now trying to determine how the laws should be made,” warns Toronto lawyer Harold Levy. “That concerns me. Every time the Criminal Lawyers Association goes to Ottawa to present a brief, the police chiefs have been there before us. This is not public relations and this is not education. It’s very close to intimidation.”

Whatever it is, the police show little inclination to stop. Joe Ross’s 600-member Police Association of Nova Scotia hopes to make capital punishment the major issue in next spring’s federal election. Its Ontario counterpart has set a $100,000 fund-raising target to promote the police viewpoint—one shared by 68 per cent of all Canadians, according to last April’s Gallup poll. Says Toronto Police Superintendent Frank Barbetta (see box): “I think the death penalty is a deterrent and I think it’s a fit punishment, not just for the murder of police officers and prison guards—that was never our contention—but for all premeditated murder.”

The new tempo of police politics does not stop with capital punishment. At almost every level, Canadian police forces are now engaged in a quest for more equipment, more personnel, more money and more -power. Especially power. Among their specific demands: the right to open mail (with a judicial warrant); changes in the Human Rights Act, to prevent criminals from gaining access to federal police files; withdrawal of Ottawa’s freedom-of-information proposals; enough federal aid to double the size of police intelligence units, to fight organized crime; and amendments to the Criminal Code that would make any car owner liable for all offences involving his vehicle—even if it were stolen. Insists Stan Raike, newly elected president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police: “The war on crime is a war indeed.”

Still, the campaign for extra clout comes when the growth rate of crime itself is levelling off. For example, between 1961 and 1967 crimes of violence increased by an average of 12 per cent annually.

But between 1975 and 1977, the average rate of growth plummeted to less than one per cent per year. Asks Dr.

Paul Reed, director of Statistics Canada’s justice division: “You’re wondering why the police need more power? I would encourage you to wonder.”

But statistics are a fruitless game; they yield more questions than they answer. Is the curve dipping because the most crime-prone age group (15 to 24) is maturing? Or is it because in an era of economic restraint, police forces—the source of most crime statistics—see no advantage in reporting new crests in the wave? No one can say conclusively.

One category that shows an indisputable advance, however, is cannabis offences, which now account for one in every eight charges laid against adults (compared to one in 57 nine years ago).

In several American states, posses-

sion of marijuana or hashish is no longer a crime and even the Canadian Bar Association—never exactly aggressive in pursuit of reform—and the government’s own 1972 LeDain Commission have called for decriminalization of simple possession. Yet last year alone, more than 40,000 possession charges were laid.

The gargantuan effort expended to curb dubious violations of the Criminal Code is not restricted to cannabis. Laments Osgoode Hall law professor Alan Grant: “Senior officers know they’re

catching the mackerel and leaving the whales; that’s what accounts for their frustration.”

Something certainly accounts for it. Although, as University of Saskatchewan law professor Brian Grosman notes, “public support for the police in this country is at an all-time high,” police morale is with few exceptions at an all-time low. Easy bail, plea bargaining, criminals acquitted by loopholes in the law, soft judges, quick parole—these are the verses of the policeman’s complaint. Staring into a coffee cup in northern B.C., an RCMP constable reflects: “Out of 20 charges you might get five or six convictions. We don’t get any support from the court. You spend hours on an investigation, paper work, court time. There’s no incentive for initiative. That’s why the guys are getting out.”

Even beyond the courtroom, though, a policeman’s lot is not a happy one these days. In Moncton, for example, Chief Greg Cahoon, a former RCMP sergeant, has upset his force with sweeping policy changes. Several senior officers have resigned. More recently, Cahoon has tried to force team policing upon the department.

In Charlottetown, friction between Chief Donald Saunders—imported from Ontario in 1974—and his staff continues. A 1977 provincial inquiry said the force was flying on a wing and a prayer, had lost public confidence and should immediately adopt formal rules and regulations—a code it had astonishingly managed to do without.

The Newfoundland Constabulary wants the right to carry guns; Halifax cops are threatening a strike; and the Quebec Policemen’s Federation (9,800 members—among the most militant blue-knight organizations in the country) predicts politicians will soon try to destroy police unions. “The storm clouds are forming,” says Guy Marcil, the federation’s executive director. “For the next three years, we won’t be fighting to gain new things, but to keep what we have won in the past.”

All of that is but a barely audible murmur to the raucous vibrations touched off by police forces in Ontario. At week’s end, the province’s police commission had completed one investigation (finding “management by crisis” in Thunder Bay), had two more under way and two others were contemplated. In tiny Ingersoll (pop. 8,200), Chief Ronald James had the temerity to suggest recently that epileptics be barred from the town’s restaurants. “Some guy barfing on the floor is not good for business,” the chief maintained.

Even Metro Toronto’s well-greased operation is sputtering. Three killings by police officers last month have raised anxious questions about police racism, emergency task forces and the adequacy of training techniques.

The most serious abuse occurred in Waterloo, Ont., former home of the Henchmen motorcycle gang, a group whose lifestyle blended into the community as punk rock blends with Beethoven. In 1977, the Waterloo Regional Police Commission hired a new police chief—Syd Brown. He was a daring and controversial choice, in part because he had been a constable—and only a constable—for 23 years.

Brown made numerous changes in Waterloo, many of them positive. He gave junior officers more authority, believing then and now that officers on the street are more in tune with reality than desk-bound administrators. But he also set up an eight-man tactical squad. This past March, it raided the Henchmen clubhouse. Ostensibly, it was a drug raid. In fact, it was an exercise in terrorism. Gang members, an Ontario Police Commission inquiry was subsequently told, were handcuffed and forced to kneel against a wall while police walked on their legs. They were made to run a gauntlet of police punches. They were beaten with nightsticks. Their clubhouse was destroyed. An improperly trained police dog inflicted more than 20 bites. Only one charge, for possession of marijuana, was laid.

“Hell, even the Pope made mistakes,” offers Constable Charles Neegy, now standing guard outside the coronary unit of Kitchener-Waterloo General Hospital where Brown, with pulse rate of 28, was admitted last month. “I tell you, Syd brought policing out of the dark ages. None of this hiding behind bushes to trap some motorist for speeding. We were doing police work.” The commission inquiry is expected to recommend next month that Brown be relieved of his duties.

The Henchmen affair and other probes have made the whole process of police investigating themselves a matter of considerable debate. Two Ontario commissions in recent years have urged formation of a citizen review board to monitor complaints of police conduct. So far, the cops have lobbied successfully against its creation.

Out west, the B.C. Police Commission has established an enviable track record, overseeing an average 1,100 citizen complaints a year, about 25 per cent of which involve allegations of police brutality. Most are unfounded. “The police are more cautious now,” says Vancouver’s senior Crown Prosecutor Bruce Donald. “The squads set up under the Police Act can lead to formal hearings. The guy on the street is thinking: ‘Why

should I put my ass on the line? All I face is a truckload of grief.’ ”

Indeed, police relations with the publie, the press and the courts seem generally more amicable west of Ontario. The central grievance of Winnipeg’s 1,007

cops is wages (they rank about 50th nationally), but it hasn’t affected performance. Violent crime in the. city’s core declined 9.7 per cent last year, thanks largely to Operation Affirmative Action, which took policemen out of their cruisers and put them back on two-man foot patrols.

Still, tension is the rule. New recruits are better trained and better educated, but they are still governed by old ideologies. They are especially puzzled by what they regard as Canada’s double standard on police morality: it’s okay to beat and harass—it’s even expected. But woe unto the constable who gets caught. Says York University sociologist Hans Mohr: “We ask them to do a lot of the dirty business we can’t be bothered with and then we say, ‘Why did you shoot? Was that chase necessary?’ But the examination is healthy. We are finally zeroing in on the issue: what police powers are really needed?”

That question is not likely to be settled soon. If anything, the debate over police powers and accountability seems certain to swell in the months ahead, changing the way Canadians view their policemen and adding new meaning to the year’s cosmic salute: may the force be with you.