Remember when we were kids and were taught that the policemen were our friends? Good guys? Watching the news lately, one wonders what happened. If you believe a lot of news stories and critics these days, the cops are the criminals and the ones good people should be terrified of. Hell, shows like Cops have been canceled to placate the riled and a widely-circulated article online called Olivia – champion of women victims in the long-running Law & Order, SVU show a “bastard” simply by virtue of her character being a police officer. It’s a tough time to be a “boy in blue”. Or girl in blue for that matter.
Watching the isolated video clips, there’s little wonder to be surprised. The death of George Floyd was clearly heinous and a blatantly criminal over-reaction to a minor crime he apparently committed and the only thing more reprehensible than the Buffalo cops shoving 75 year old Martin Gugino, causing him to smash his head and suffer a fractured skull, was the other riot police walking by him ignoring the bleeding senior. Or maybe the president defending them suggesting Gugino was a terrorist waving some magic wand that could eliminate all police communications systems.
It’s all a lot for me to take in. I always figured there were bound to be a few bad cops – a tiny minority – but for the most part they were honorable, hard-working people devoted to the common good. But watching some of these videos and seeing reactions like the entire Buffalo riot squad resigning in support of their violent comrades and some police hide their ID tags to prevent being identified makes me rethink how few and far between bad ones are.
It’s sad. I come from a slightly (only slightly, but still) calmer, more peaceful country, Canada. We’ve seen cops do some bad things there too, but such reports are definitely less common than on this side of the 49th Parallel. I grew up near Toronto, in a county (or “regional municipality” as we call it) that had two large cities within its borders plus a fair expanse of rural farmland.The area had a population of over 600 000 and was growing fast, and was serviced by one regional police force. They had to deal with calls that ranged from bar brawls to biker gang rallies, bodies washing up on the Lake Ontario shoreline and coke smuggling to ice fishermen falling through the ice on rural lakes in winter and the occasional bear wandering into a town.
A friend – actually a girlfriend’s big brother at the time – joined the force and soon was on their Swat team. Outside of work he was easy-going, fast with a smile and able to get along with people of any number of backgrounds equally well. A good guy, and I presume, a good cop. I had a job for over a decade in a pro camera store and lab which had the contract with the police to provide their camera gear and develop their films. We had to be vetted, and no wonder. Through the years there, not a murder happened that I (and most of us in there) didn’t end up seeing photos of – crime scene, victim, weapons, autopsy, accused, you name it. We developed film after film of car accidents, assaults, robberies, suicides and anything else that asked for a police documentation. I was told that it was as good as a “get out of jury duty free” ticket since we all had such intimate knowledge of the big cases, much of which never made the news wire stories, we’d never be approved to be on a jury. Over the years, I got to know a lot of the cops. Many of the “Soco” officers (Scene of Crime), the patrol officers with cameras that would handle basic B&Es, minor car accidents and the like as well as the entire “Ident” (Forsensic Identification Unit) crew of specialized investigators akin to the TV CSI people. I knew the homicide squad by name,loaded supplies into their trucks.
And what I found was that they were good guys. I say “guys” because the vast majority of them were male, although there was a female homicide cop – a rather pretty one truth be told, although unlike a Hollywood version of her kind, one who went to work in baggy cargo pants and body armor instead of Dior dresses and heels! They were different – some were a lot younger than me, some were a decade or more older and nearing retirement, and their personalities were varied as would be with any group of dozens of people. A few were very intense and hyper, some had wicked senses of humor and wouldn’t leave without sharing a joke. Many brought in pictures of their home . Wives, kids, weekends fishing, photographing birds or working with body builders or redoing old car bodies. Some would talk about the cases and what they saw, others avoided the topics completely. But the one through and through feature was they all seemed like absolutely decent people working to make the area better and safer. Guys you’d be very relieved to see drive up if someone was trying to get into your back door at night, or happy enough to have a coffee with if you ran into them at the Tim Horton’s.
It makes comprehending the current American situation more difficult for me. I don’t have an easy solution to make the situation fine or ensure that police are all wonderful, or at least as good as the ones I used to rub shoulders with. But a few things seem to me like they’d be helpful .
First, an obvious one. We need the body cams and dash cams most forces already have. They should be on every police unit dashboard and clipped on every shirt or vest of an on-duty officer. The car ones should be triggered as soon as the warning lights or siren are activated and the cops should be instructed to activate the body cams every time they leave their vehicle on a call. Disabling the cameras would be grounds for termination of their employment. Even an honest person can lose track of exactly was happening in a chaotic situation and the camera can show us better what went wrong, or right for that matter. The dishonest one of course, will realize they’ll have less chance of getting away with misbehavior if they’re being recorded.
Speaking of their cars and shirts or vests, I think having fewer unmarked or undercover people and cars would benefit all. Obviously, there are situations where undercover work is necessary. Police couldn’t infiltrate, say a street gang that robbed stores and sold crack around the neighborhood if they were dressed in uniform and driving cars with a fancy blue light array on the roof. But more and more police work seems to be undertaken by people in street clothes driving unmarked cars and trucks and as a result we see more stories like shootouts at raids where the inhabitants claim the police stormed in with no way of being identified as police as opposed to street thugs. If they’re wearing the blue or black shirts with the badge and drove up, lights flashing, there’d be little defence for them being shot at.
In Ontario, there’s a Special Investigations Unit. It’s a government branch which is automatically called in to police the police, if you will, any time a civilian dies in a police operation or other serious incidents (like car accidents ) occur involving on duty police. The local force have to step aside and let the SIU investigate to see if there was any wrong-doing. There are several “teams” for the province, but usually they aren’t from the same town they are investigating. It’s not perfect. For one thing, the majority of people hired to the SIU are former cops themselves, which has led to calls of bias. But the idea is valid and if the investigators would include a wider cross-section of the populace, would be a great way to ensure that police negligence or worse, crimes, weren’t covered up. States should have the same sort of investigators.
Finally, the concept of being a police officer needs to change. In parts of the country at least. It is a vital function for society. It is a trying job with gigantic responsibility. It calls for wisdom, good physical conditioning, great communications skills and a moral compass pointing squarely north. It needs to be seen as an important career, not just a job for any Joe. As such, the country needs uniform minimum standards to be a cop, and in most locations, the bar needs raising. More training is needed, which should include psychological courses and testing, cultural studies, anger management courses as well as studies of the law and weaponry and driving under adverse conditions. It might take a couple of years before a young person was qualified to be a policeman or woman, but we’d be relatively assured of having high quality individuals doing the job when they graduated. And that, I might add, may well require paying them more. Not every prospective cop would like that added training, and not every taxpayer would like being faced with potentially increased municipal taxes, but in the end, if our streets are safer, are downtowns aren’t being burned down and the police aren’t suffocating citizens on the streets, it should be a trade-off we’re willing to make.