JOHN DEMONT,BARRY CAME,JOHN HOWSE,1 more...November161992
Frustration in blue
Across Canada, police officers are angry
The police protests in Ontario are only the latest symptom of widespread anger and frustration among many of Canada’s law enforcement officers. Last week, Maclean’s correspondents interviewed police in four major cities about their concerns. Their report:
Const. John Gardiner, 40, sips lukewarm coffee and peers out of a doughnut shop window at a damp street in downtown Halifax. “Morale is low,” says the 12-year Halifax police force veteran and president of the Municipal Association of Police Personnel, the union that represents the city’s 280 officers. Gardiner, who recently ended a ninemonth undercover assignment, discusses what he says is his worst fear. “Someday,” predicts Gardiner, “a young policeman is going to get killed because he was reluctant to take the proper action to deal with a situation—out of concern over what the public outcry would be.” Like many of their peers across Canada, Halifax police officers maintain that political interference has made their jobs increasingly difficult. The main problem, they say, is pressure from special-interest groups, particularly the city’s increasingly vocal black community, for more police accountability. To some degree, the department has moved to answer its critics. Since taking office on Jan. 1, 1991, Police Chief Vincent MacDonald has tried to build bridges to the black community by appointing three race-relations officers and recruiting more black police constables; currently five of the force’s 200 constables are black. Says Donald Clairmont, a sociology professor
at the city’s Dalhousie University who studies policing issues: “Halifax has taken the lead when it comes to dealing with minority groups.”
But even policemen who acknowledge the need for change complain that the pendulum has swung too far. “It is confusing,” one sergeant explains. “It seems like our guys can’t do their jobs without appearing racist, or trampling on the rights of some special-interest group.” Some Halifax police officers say that sometimes they tum a blind eye to crime simply because they are afraid of being labelled racist. Ultimately, concludes Gardiner, police officers are now under pressure to be “social workers rather than peace officers.” Finishing his coffee, he adds, “The problem is that when I am out in the street in the middle of the action, I just don’t have time for that.”
Rocked by charges of pervasive racism and gross incompetence, the embattled and demoralized Montreal Urban Community Police Department is now the object of a wide-ranging independent, provincially mandated inquiry. Since last May, retired Quebec Court of Appeal Judge Albert Malouf has been studying the 4,500-member force and its procedures. His report is not expected until next summer—but previous reports have severely criticized the Montreal police. After the July, 1991, death of Marcellus François, an unarmed black man shot by police in a case of mistaken identity, a coroner’s report into the tragedy charged that there was “a totally unacceptable” level of racism among Montreal police and “an institu-
tional failure of the department as a whole.”
Those findings infuriated many Montreal police officers, who had already staged street demonstrations to vent their anger at an internal investigation that reached many of the same conclusions. But the François shooting has sparked some reforms. In several neighborhoods, police have opened mini-stations in an attempt to forge closer ties with the public. In addition, more officers are being deployed on the streets. And the force has launched a campaign to recruit members of visible minorities.
Still, many Montreal police officers say that those measures are only window dressing. Yves Prud’Homme, president of the powerful Montreal Urban Community Police Brotherhood, argues that Montreal’s police department remains critically understaffed. He points out that well over half of all of the crimes committed in Quebec occur within the Montreal department’s jurisdiction—but that only a third of the province’s police officers work in the city. And he says that charges of racism only serve to divert attention from the real issue: not enough is being done to reverse the trend to increasing public violence.
“We don’t need any more committees or inquiries,” says Prud’Homme.
“What we need is support in the fight to prevent Montreal from turning into another New York, Detroit or Washington.”
In many ways, the Calgary Police Department is the envy of other forces across Canada. The city’s police enjoy generally harmonious relations with the Calgary Police Commission, the civilian agency that governs the force, as well as with Alberta’s Conservative government and the community at
large. Says Staff Sgt. Michael Dungey, -
president of the 1,200-member Calgary Police Association: “There are no problems that would cause us to take job action.” According to Dungey, the primary reason for the Calgary force’s relatively high morale is that it is subject to little political interference. “We don’t have an NDP government here,” he says. “It appears that the NDP takes a strong stand on law and order—on the opposite side of the police.”
That certainly cannot be said of Steven West, Alberta’s solicitor general and a self-proclaimed law-and-order proponent. “He won’t take nonsense from civil libertarians,” Dungey says. “He listens to the rank and file. The relationship is very healthy—Metro Toronto does not have that.” That pro-police atmosphere has resulted in substantial gains for the force. Calgary’s police—and their counterparts in Edmonton— recently won a four-year battle to replace their standard side arm, the Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolver, with the more powerful, Austrian-made Glock 10 mm semi-automatic pistol. Police associations in Ontario have lobbied unsuccessfully for similar weapons.
Calgary’s police have also won praise from
many members of their community. “I hear few complaints about the police,” says Terrence Armstrong, a Métis and executive director of the Calgary Aboriginal Awareness Society. “Our relations are not perfect—but they are better than in any of the other 20 communities I have visited in Western Canada.” He adds: “As far as natives are concerned, Calgary is an oasis in the desert of racism.”
According to Det. John de Haas, the problems facing the Vancouver Police Department are
common to every major urban centre in North America. The most pressing issues, says the president of the 1,200-member Vancouver Police Union, are the use of force, accountability, methods of reviewing police conduct and the need for the force to reflect the ethnic composition of the community. But looking across the country at the standoff between Ontario police and the NDP government, de Haas acknowledges that Vancouver police face a far less confrontational situation with the B.C. NDP administration. “The process in the East is clearly more political,” he says. “Here it is a much more objective, businesslike approach.”
As part of that approach, last June the provincial cabinet appointed B.C. Supreme Court Justice Wallace T. Oppal to conduct an inquiry into policing in the province. The inquiry is the first such review since the early 1970s and has a sweeping mandate. Oppal, whose report is scheduled to be completed by the end of next year, will examine such issues as the structure of the law enforcement system, police training, promotion policies and
aboriginal policing. Provincial officials say that the inquiry was not prompted by any one incident, although the use of force by Vancouver police has recently stirred controversy. Twice in the past year, Vancouver officers have been investigated for allegedly using excess force. But in both cases those concerned were exonerated. In a separate case last spring, the Crown did not press charges against an officer who shot and killed a man brandishing a pellet gun.
Still, Vancouver’s police continue to face
frustrations. The union has been without a contract since Jan. 1. The main issue in the negotiations is money—at an average salary of $47,100, Vancouver constables with three years’ experience earn about eight per cent less than their counterparts in Toronto and Montreal. De Haas also says that his members are demoralized by the failings of the justice system. “You keep recycling the same criminals,” he declares. “We recycle, we reuse.” Another contentious issue is the hierarchical structure of the police force. Under the existing system, officers complain, successful police are often promoted away from direct police work and into supervisory roles and management. Most of those concerns will likely be assessed by Justice Oppal’s inquiry— a method of addressing problems that the Vancouver Police Union membership clearly prefer to marching on the provincial legislature.
JOHN DEMONT in Halifax, BARRY CAME in Montreal, JOHN HOWSE in Calgary and HAL QUINN in Vancouver
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