Have police earned new powers?

John Martin, Abbotsford Times, Oct. 15, 2010


Much of the success or failure of public policy comes down to a matter of timing.

Even the most sensible and thoughtful initiative can be disastrous if instituted at the wrong time and during the wrong conditions. Consider the recently announced penalties regarding drinking and driving.

Supporters of the new rules are adamant that anything that reduces the number of impaired, even marginally impaired drivers, is good public policy.

Opponents are concerned about the erosion of civil liberties and the impact on due process and the presumption of innocence. A recent column on the issue generated a considerable number of pieces of correspondence, with about twice as many opposing the penalties as supporting them.

One theme that was repeated often in these e-mails is a lack of trust in the police to use these new powers in a professional manner. Readers made reference to the number of officers involved in scandalous behaviour in recent times and made it quite clear they simply don't trust the police.

It causes one to wonder if there would have been the same backlash were these penalties introduced ten years ago. Until quite recently, police across the country had unwavering levels of public support. But over the last several years, this has taken a substantial hit. The public’s confidence in the police has been challenged numerous times, but the Robert Dziekanski incident at the Vancouver Airport delivered the most damning blow.

The questionable use of the taser that led to his death is one thing.

More damaging though, was the finding of the public inquiry that the police engaged in “shameful conduct” and made “deliberate misrepresentations.” Any reasonable person who followed the proceedings could only conclude that the officers involved lied their butts off.

This is what has many people legitimately concerned about the new drinking and driving rules. Unlike a criminal charge, the police won’t have to demonstrate they followed the rules and they won’t have their version of the chain of events subjected to scrutiny and cross-examination in court. A decade ago the public might have been okay with giving such discretionary powers to the police. It appears that’s no longer the case.

This sad reality isn’t simply a function of the proverbial few bad apples. It’s well known that police agencies are not being flooded with the same number of outstanding applicants as they once were.

Many police forces are reluctantly hiring people who, ten years ago, would have been screened out in the early stages of the application process. Others are opting to leave vacancies unfilled rather than hire from the current pool of applicants.

As Thomas Braidwood wrote following the public inquiry, “Mr. Dziekanski’s death appears to have galvanized public antipathy for the Force and its members. That is regrettable, because the most important weapon in the arsenal of the police is public support.”

Given the diminished level of this public support, it was probably not the right time to grant the police such unprecedented discretion to suspend licenses and impound vehicles.

— John Martin is a criminologist at the University of the Fraser Valley.

Read about some cops who kill out of sheer cowardice here and here.
Go to News and Comment page