Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Solidarity tomorrow

Talk about feeling torn.

An Ontario court has struck down a section of the RCMP Act that forbade the Mounties to form a union. Gulp.

Unionization, as far as I'm concerned, is a right that one doesn't normally tamper with. Police officers, after all, are workers too. But there's a problem here, and I think most people can see it. Police, whether federal, provincial or municipal (and the RCMP actually plays all three roles in various jurisdictions), are generally unaccountable to the public whom they are supposed to serve and protect, watched over by toothless and/or complaisant oversight groups and literally able, as we have seen recently, to get away with homicide.

In the current conjuncture of forces, a police union only exacerbates the culture of impunity that envelops police forces in this country. Even if the upper echelon is motivated to try to keep the shop clean, a police union operates in the opposite direction: its job, of course, is to defend its members, no matter how discreditable their conduct, and police associations have done a spectacular job of it.

Take Craig Bromell's reign as President of the Toronto Police Association. The TPA became openly political under Bromell: its "Operation True Blue" initiative a few years ago, for example, which offered drivers windshield decals in return for financial contributions to back police-friendly municipal candidates, was rightly seen by many as a matter of serious concern.

On CBC's Fifth Estate, Bromell said, "I think if you found somebody who is an enemy of the police, we don't want him around. So you try and get him kicked out of office. Pretty simple... All the other loudmouths, they're going to keep their mouths shut... (We're) going to target our enemies."

"You can call me a bully," Bromell said. Asked if the campaign was intimidation, he replied, "You can call it that."

The police chief at the time, David Boothby, ordered the TPA to stop. Responded Bromell: "He doesn't have any power over us."

The TPA doesn't like opposition much. It sued Liberal MP Judy Sgro for critical comments she made about the campaign--while a member of the Police Services Board. A police raid in 2000 on a lesbian bathhouse was found by the courts to be an unconstitutional violation of civil rights, but Toronto City Councillor Kyle Rae, who dared criticize the officers who took part in it, was successfully sued for libel.

The Ottawa Police Association, meanwhile, threatened to sue the victim of a police beating caught on videotape, for speaking out about his treatment. (Some possibly surprising commentary about that incident can be found here.)

Yes, police are workers: but they do not occupy the same social space as other workers. They are a paramilitary force, an arm of the state with power over others, with few controls in place. I think it's fair to argue that they should just stay out of politics, as our armed forces are enjoined to do. Moreover, without public accountability and effective civilian scrutiny of the police, a union merely strengthens the hand of rogue police officers.

Under current circumstances, a police union offers just that much more resistance to oversight, and even more defence of the indefensible. It is yet another force arrayed against the citizen, who has little enough power as it is. We can complain to police about the police, of course, and in the rare instances in which our complaints are upheld we can expect that the officers will be given wrist-slaps and broad winks. But it's an unequal contest. (In fairness, the new civilian review system in Ontario, just being implemented, has not had any time to run--we shall see.)

With a proper system of accountability, however--by which I mean no-nonsense third-party civilian review with teeth, and appropriate penalties for misconduct--a police union would be defending its members within a new and far less threatening context. There would be legally and practically enforceable rules of police conduct and procedure, and a concomitant change in police culture within which it would operate. And then I'd be all for it.

We have some way to travel, however, before police unions cease to be yet another threat to ordinary people. And as the Braidwood Inquiry chugs along, while incident after incident of Taser-happy, brutal, unaccountable RCMP officers hits the media, the notion of an RCMP union frankly makes my blood run cold. The officers are already empowered enough, it seems to me: indeed, as the Ian Bush affair indicated, some of them appear to be endowed with superhuman traits. Solidarity, then, but...not just now, thanks.

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