The Pursuit and Perils of Prisons for Profit

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a Nashville-based privately owned company, has made a sweet-sounding offer to corrections officials in 48 American states: “We’ll buy your prisons and run them, if you guarantee us a 90% occupancy rate for the next 20 years.”

The statement is at once absurd and rational.

Absurd because it dismisses human suffering, be it that of victims or that of prisoners, to one side of an equation in the market place.

More bodies equal more income.

Greater imprisonment becomes a pre-condition for profit.

For the same reason, the statement is rational.  Why else get into the business of running prisons, if not to make large profits?

But imprisonment rates should not be a function of profit-making for private or public bodies.

Because rehabilitation has proven to be largely ineffective in our overcrowded, oppressive, and resource-scarce prisons, punishment is the only remaining excuse behind imprisonment.

Since the aim of imprisonment is punishment by the state, the burden should rest with the state.

Privatize jails and we abdicate our (albeit abysmal) responsibility to how we run jails.  We can blame a third-party for filthy cells covered in urine and feces, for the spread of diseases (which will eventually reach the rest of the population), for the lock-downs that force people into crammed cells for more than 20 hours a day, and for the physical and sexual abuse that take place.

But we (the state) are the ones who deal with our collective social problems with “deviant” behaviour by banishing people into isolation and destructive environments.  So we should bear the responsibility for those persons while they are in our institutions (and when they get out.)

Even in the absence of moral objections to prisons for profit, there is reason to flee from prison privatization. Currently, all signs point in one direction: private prisons are worse than public ones.

Here are some of the proven dangers:

1)  Corruption and kickbacks:

The fact that privately-run jails increase their profits through greater imprisonment opens the door for undue influence and corruption, whereby state officials, including judges, could send people to jail for personal gain.

Indeed, this is precisely what happened with two Pennsylvania judges, Michael T. Conahan and Mark A. Ciavarella Jr., who sent thousands of young persons to two privately-run jails and secured millions of dollars in kickbacks.  Many of those young people were first time “offenders,” such as a 17-year-old exemplary student who set up a spoof MySpace page that mocked the assistant principal of her school.  She got three months in jail.

Another young person, a 17-year-old star athlete, was found with drug paraphernalia.  Ciavarella sentenced him to several months of jail and a “wilderness camp.”  He missed his entire senior year and, according to his mother, never got over the ordeal.  He committed suicide at the age of 23.[i]

Ciavarella also locked up a young person who had stolen a jar of nut-meg, and one 10-year-old.

2)  Health and safety failures:

It’s not that provincially and federally-run prisons operate at desirable health and safety standards; it’s that privately-run ones fair so much worse.  A  CCA-owned prison in Ohio at once violated 47 health and safety standards.  Among those violations: no local fire plan to deal with inmates from locked areas in case of emergencies.[ii]

3)  Greater abuse:

Physical, sexual and emotional abuse, whether at the hands of jail guards or other prisoners, happen in state-run prisoners, as well.  But the abuses are likely to be worse in private prisons.  Inadequate training, understaffing, health and safety risks, unsanitary cells, lack of access to medical doctors or to therapists, and insufficient “recreation” time increase tension levels.  Staff will feel less safe.  These conditions make jails ripe for abuse.

The shocking actions of staff at one Mississippi Youth Detention Centre, Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility, was at the centre of a recent lawsuit.  Drug smuggling by correctional workers and sexual and physical assault of the young prisoners were just some of the horrific instances of abuse of power that took place occurred at Walnut Grove.[iii]

4)  Offenders may get out even worse than when they leave state prisons:

There is plenty of proof that prisoners, especially young ones, leave jail in worse condition than before, and that many are likely to recommit offences.   This problem will be exacerbated when jail conditions are worse, when there is greater abuse, less access to education, and less counseling and therapy.

5) The ultimate cost to society is much higher:

While governments may enjoy a brief windfall when they sell prisons to third-parties, society will pay a greater and more significant long-term cost: greater mental health problems, greater recidivism, more disease, inadequate levels of education and training, potentially more expensive law-suits, the list goes on.  Every flaw and every evil associated with imprisonment will multiply.

In the end, a strategy with the aim of reducing costs short-term could make everyone bankrupt, both financially and morally.

6) Diminished incentive to explore and implement alternative dispute resolution, restorative justice and other initiatives that require would decrease imprisonment:

If a government is locked into a 20-year contract to supply a firm with commoditized people, then how can they honestly implement processes that might result in a breach of that contract?

Despite the many problems with private prisons in American jails, the trend doesn’t seem to be stopping, as evidenced by CCA’s recent offer to 48 American states to buy their correctional facilities in exchange for certain guarantees by the state.

At least one firm has seized the opportunity to knock on Canadian government doors for business opportunities in prisons.

If we don’t watch out, the same problems could reach us here, in Canada.

With the closure of Kingston Penitentiary, and the expected increase in our prison population, which will result directly from the “tough-on-crime” changes made by the current government, we in Canada will see a rise in the cost of maintaining our prisons.

With a government whose rhetoric, at least, is focused on less public spending, one wonders how all these added and mounting costs will be covered.

Could some of these costs be ultimately “covered” through privatization?  Correctional Services of Canada has urged Vic Toews, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, to consider the privatization of at least some services, such as cleaning and food preparation in federal institutions.  GEO Group, the very “enterprise” that ran the Walnut Grove facility where young people were sexually assaulted by the staff, met with Mr. Toews last October and lobbied the government to privatize its jails, or at least some portion of its penitentiaries services.[iv]

Julie Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Vic Toews, has said, “We have no appetite to pursue fully privatized prisons.”[v]  But that begs the question, “What are you considering privatizing?”

Despite claims by the Canadian government that it is not considering the privatization of prisons, the current trend in the criminal justice system seem to carve a different path—one ripe for handing over the responsibility for running jails to companies focused on making a million bucks.

Perhaps it’s reassuring that our one affair with private prisons (in Penetanguishene) was a short-lived one. But people also have a habit of flirting with failed experiments, in part because we forget, in part because we don’t pay attention, in part because of the misguided notion that “saving money” is both just and not costly, in the long run.

Mostly, however, so long as we believe that it is morally justifiable to treat human life, liberty and dignity as simply a function of the market equation, we will manipulate it, dispense with it, and mistreat it, just as we always have.



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Thunder Bay Police Cry a River

“Disappointed,” “discouraged,” and insulted.  Those are the feelings of the Thunder Bay Police Service after three First Nations communities filed a human rights complaint against the police following a chain of events that marks the continuing gap between our police services, the people they serve, and the common desire for general respect, co-operation and sensitivity.

Here’s the recap:  One member of the police force accidentally disseminated a mock news release that he authored to the media.   He meant it as a “joke,” to be sent internally to other Thunder Bay police officers.  He didn’t mean it for the public eye.  He headlined his news release, “Fresh Breath Killer Captured.”  The reference, of course, is to the fact that the suspected killer of a Native man, who was found in an area allegedly frequented by people who drink mouth-wash to get drunk, had been arrested by the police.  Or perhaps the officer was referring to the suspect, who is also a Native man (can’t rely on the grammar for an accurate understanding of the headline.)

Maybe it’s needless to emphasize that the headline was offensive, prejudicial, and racist.

Or maybe that’s precisely what needs emphasis.

Apparently, the Thunder Bay Deputy Police Chief, Andy Hay, and Thunder Bay’s Mayor, Keith Hobbs, who necessarily sits on the Police Services Board, don’t think that the comment was offensive, racist, prejudicial, or a problem at all.  Hay claimed that he didn’t think the e-mail reflected a “racial issue.”  And Hobbs told the media that the media is making something out of nothing, and that the e-mail news-release “has nothing to do with race.”

Neither the Deputy Police Chief nor the Mayor seemed to believe that the comments were worth getting upset about.

To make things worse, the police declared their view that race was not an issue before any internal investigation was completed.  This conclusion was not only premature, but it minimized the offensiveness of the e-mail.  Effectively, they dismissed the issue, further offended, closed the doors on, and alienated the families and people involved.

Seeing that the police force had already made up its mind about the nature of the email, three First Nations communities decided to file a human rights complaint.

That’s when the police got upset.

Chris Adams, the Thunder Bay Police’s Executive Officer, claimed that the police are “disappointed” by the decision of the deceased’s family and the three communities to file a complaint against the police.  Police Chief J.P. Levesque said that he was “discouraged” by the decision to file a complaint.

Not to be outdone, Police Association President Greg Stephenson said that his members are “outraged” by the complaint, and that the claim is “counterproductive to the meaningful partnerships that we have built between police and the citizens.”

The police have called the filing of the complaint a “step backward.”

It appears that the police have got it backward.

It was the officer’s e-mail that set back previous efforts to build bridges.

Perhaps such set-backs are occasionally to be expected.  In such cases, it is the response that matters.  Unfortunately, the police response hurdled back the efforts at cooperation.

And since there was an unwillingness to view these slurs as racial, as both reinforcing stereotypes and mocking a tragic and complex social problem, the human rights complaint may give everyone precisely what is needed: a chance at meaningful mediation, systemic education, and further police training.

(post-script: Thunder Bay’s Mayor, while maintaining that the media is insensitive and that the email simply displayed, “dark humour,” has apologized for the hurt caused by the e-mail, in his position as Mayor, and not as a member of the Police Services Board of Thunder Bay.  The PSB is expected to issue an apology later today: )


“Thunder Bay Police ‘Insulted’ by Human Rights Complaint,” CBC news, Sept. 19, 2012

Labine, Jeff. “Controversial email,”, Sept. 5, 2012

Smith, Jamie. “Sad State of Affairs,”, Sept 18, 2012

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Reducing Court Congestion Is Easy

[1]The examples below are based on actual incidents from around Toronto, but names and other information about  individuals have been changed to preserve their identity.

Sheena, Farzaneh and a third classmate were walking in the crowded halls of their junior high,  joking around with one another.  Sheena and Farzaneh grabbed Kim’s scarf and threw it to one another.  After Sheena threw it, she did not see what happened to the scarf, the bell rang, and the girls went into their classroom.  Kim could not find her scarf.  Upset, she reported it to a teacher.  The police were called, and Sheena and Farzaneh were both charged with theft.

Sahir and James were Grade 9 high school friends.  One day, for no clear reason, they removed one of the school’s fire extinguishers and sprayed it all over an empty portable classroom.  The police were called and Sahir and James were both charged with possession of stolen property (the fire extinguisher) and with mischief.

Mira told the police that Katrina, a landed immigrant, a wife, and a mother of two children, aged 7 and 5, hit and broke her camera at a cultural event attended by hundreds of people.  The damages were estimated at $500.00.   Without conducting any further investigation, the police went to Katrina’s home, and violently arrested her in front of her two young children.   Katrina was charged with mischief.  After a year-and-a-half in the criminal justice system, tremendous hardship, and lasting psychological harm to Katrina’s children who became fearful of the police, the Crown Attorney withdrew her charges.

In a different time, in a different place, all of these interactions might have been dealt with reasonably, rationally, and by the community.

In the lost scarf scenario, the teachers, the principal or even Kim’s parents, might have sat down with Sheena and Farzaneh, found out if the incident was truly an accident or a case of excessive teasing.  They might have talked to Sheena and Farzaneh’s parents, and enlisted everyone’s help in finding or replacing the scarf.  They might have engaged in the kind of conversation that would have helped Sheena and Farzaneh see the impact of their actions, especially if they were bullying Kim.  Kim would have felt heard and empowered, and Sheena and Farzaneh would have helped in the healing.

Sahir and James may have received a stern talk from the principal and their parents.  Maybe they would have been grounded.  Maybe they would have been suspended for a couple of days.  They would have helped with the clean-up of the classroom and perhaps paid for any damages.  They would have, in real terms, been responsible for their actions.  And they would have continued their studies, without the stigma of a criminal charge.

In Katrina and Mira’s case, the police could have investigated the case further, instead of attacking and arresting Katrina in her home, in front of her children.  They could have easily found out that another person claimed responsibility for bumping into the camera; and that it was an accident.  They could have simply called in Katrina, who would have gone into the police station and told them her version of the events.  There was no need to treat her so violently.

In all of the above scenarios, the community and the police had several options available to them to deal with each case comprehensively, responsibly, and in a way that would have satisfied everyone, without causing further harm.  Instead, everyone abdicated their own responsibility and immediately opted to use a sledgehammer to kill an ant.

Everyone reached for their guns.

Sheena and Farzaneh, two young girls who had never been in trouble with the law before, were now viewed as “criminals.”  They had to take time off school to appear in court several times.  They were dragged through the criminal justice system.  Police time, court time and legal aid, all limited resources, were wasted on the kind of thing that many view as normal, if undesirable teenage behaviour.

Sahir and James, neither of whom had a criminal record, also got their first taste of an expensive and at times disorganized criminal justice system.  Rather than feel responsible for their actions, they felt the heavy hand of the law and the unfairness of a disproportionate response to their actions- actions which, again, at different times, would have been dismissed as “boys will be boys,” as letting off steam.  Actions which did not harm any one individual.  While we don’t have to excuse or dismiss negative behaviour by young men, there are surely other means of dealing with Sahir and James’s actions than criminalizing them and having their case occupy the criminal justice system for well over a year.

And yet, while every one of us, citizens and politicians, complain about the amount of time and money it takes to get issues resolved in courts, no one is willing to take the simplest, most rational, most sensible step:

To really reduce congestion in the courts, we’ve got to have less cases enter the system, in the first place.

Some cases just don’t belong in the criminal justice system.

There are more effective, more humane, and cheaper ways to deal with some problems.

But instead, we blame not having enough resources.  Instead, we blame defence lawyers for standing up for their clients’ rights and ensuring that our legal system does not become abusive.  Instead, we make laws that widen the net that traps people into the justice system.  Instead, we make mandatory minimum sentences, which will result in more people opting for a trial, as opposed to pleading guilty, therefore clogging the system more.  Instead, we take away money from those programs (such as restorative justice ones) designed to resolve conflicts in more meaningful ways that cost less, have greater positive impact, and are less punitive.

Think about it: if you want to reduce hospital and health costs and wait time resulting from smoking, would you hand out more cigarettes, make them easier for young people to obtain, build more hospitals, or would you invest in preventing smoking, in the first place?

If you want to reduce congestion on the roads, would you take away the bicycle lanes, make a rule that everyone has to drive to work, reduce public transit services, or would you make it easier for people to get to their destination without having to drive?

The most effective way to reduce any kind of traffic is to deal with the problem at the point of entry.  Everyone of us, and in particular actors in the criminal justice system, need to take responsibility for this.

Parents and educators must demand that schools and the police make greater efforts to teach, preach and practice conflict resolution skills.  Let’s not waste resources by calling the police for every lost or broken item.  Let’s abandon our zero-tolerance policy toward any aberrant act.  Let’s focus on meaningful options for conflict resolution.

Our police should also be trained to avoid laying charges, where the actions are minor and where other, more effective forms of conflict resolution exist and can be helpful.  Any criminal lawyer can make a long list of cases where clients were charged with petty offences for actions that were hardly dangerous and that can be dealt with better in other ways.  Any criminal lawyer can tell you of cases he or she had where, had the police conducted a fuller investigation, they may not have charged the client.  Any criminal lawyer can make a list of cases where there was barely any reliable evidence against their client.

Once the police charge these people, the cases enter the criminal justice system and stay there–rotting, delaying justice, labeling, stigmatizing, and frustrating accused and victims alike.

Crown Attorneys generally do not have the time and sometimes lack the courage, at an early stage, to just pull out cases that don’t belong in the courts.  Their policies and directions need to change, as well.  That is a crucial step in reducing court congestion.

As a community, we need to be ready to deal with conflicts through mediation and other restorative justice means.  As educators, we need to teach young people to understand the impact of their actions and be accountable.  We need to help victims feel heard and empowered.  We need to help accused persons feel connected and capable of making other choices.

We need to make everyone responsible for the solution, rather just hold the criminal justice system responsible for everyone’s failures.

We need to train our officers to solve conflicts more peacefully and collaboratively, to speak, engage, build trust and help find solutions.  And we need to give Crown Attorneys the time, the direction, and the freedom to examine files early on, to determine if the case before them belongs in the criminal justice system, in the first place, and to determine if it should be resolved through alternative means.

It turns out that the best and easiest way to reduce court congestion is also the most sensible, the most ethical, and the most responsible option.  We need the political will to implement it.  And the political will will come only when voters demand it.

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Tribunal? What Tribunal?

Six times in 33 minutes.

That is how often Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair employed the word “tribunal” in his May 16th press conference relating to the OIPRD report that dealt with police behaviour during the G20 in Toronto.  He used the word “tribunal” to refer to potential misconduct hearings against police officers whose cases the OIPRD has asked the Chief to deal with under the Police Services Act.

In this same press conference, Chief Blair refused, yet again, to concede or accept that there were mass violations of citizens’ rights or to apologize to those whose rights were so blatantly and shockingly violated.   He repeatedly claimed that he will only hold police officers accountable for misconduct if such misconduct is proven on the basis of evidence given before a “tribunal.”

The trouble is, there is no “tribunal” to deal with police misconduct.

The word “tribunal” is not mentioned once in the Police Services Act.

Most people understand “tribunal” to mean an arms-length, independent, neutral body that has the final say in the matter before it, like a court.  A court is a kind of tribunal.

In Ontario, for example, we have the Human Rights Tribunal, the Rental Housing Tribunal, and the Workers Safety and Insurance Tribunal.

Adjudicators and prosecutors are appointed to these tribunals after a competitive process, whereby the positions are advertised, resumés are reviewed by committees, and qualified  candidates are interviewed.

No such process exists for police misconduct hearings.  There is no open, competitive application process.  There are no interviews by disinterested, distinct, and neutral third-parties.

It is the Chief of Police who appoints the prosecutors for police misconduct hearings. And it is the Chief of Police who appoints the person who will conduct these hearings.

The Chief, Bill Blair, the same person who has been called on by many to resign, or at least to admit that people’s rights were grossly violated during the G20 under his watch, is the one who appoints the prosecutor and the “adjudicator.”

This is no arms-length adjudicative body.

There is a misconduct hearing.  And the Chief decides who prosecutes and who adjudicates.

This is not a “tribunal.”

Calling such a body a “tribunal” requires a stretch of the public-relations mind.

One might say, so what?  So what if the Chief used the word “tribunal?”  There is still a hearing with an adjudicator and a prosecutor.

The Chief is an extremely intelligent officer, well-familiar with the law, particularly the laws which concern his job, his duties, and the members of the Toronto Police.  He knows the Police Services ActHe refers to it, and refers journalists to it.  He surely knows that the hearings that are held at Police Headquarters, where he appoints the prosecutors and the “adjudicators”, are not like the daily hearings that take place before the province’s many real tribunals.

I believe that Chief Bill Blair used the word “tribunal” quite deliberately.  And, in the context of the G20 and its aftermath, the use of the term “tribunal” is problematic and misleading.

Let’s outline this context:

  •  Two years have passed since the G20.   Still, there has been no apology to the people of Toronto and others, despite the abundant and overwhelming evidence that shows egregious violations of people’s rights.
  •  The Chief could have started his own investigations into any number of misconducts that were apparent to him.  He did not need to wait for the OIPRD report or any other report.  He did not even need to wait for any member of the public to complain to him.  Under s.76 of the Police Services Act, the Chief may make a complaint against any member of his own force.  But the Chief did not take this step against the perhaps hundreds of officers who could have been identified in any of the videos made public after the G20.
  •  Had the Chief started his own processes, more officers may have been held accountable for their misconduct.  This is so because the Chief has easy access to information that can help him identify officers (whereas the Special Investigations Unit does not, for example).  More significantly, a speedier response, which was available to the Chief, would have meant that officers could not avoid responsibility simply by retiring, joining another force, or resigning their positions, which place them outside the jurisdiction of the Police Services Act.  Already, at least two senior officers identified by the OIPRD have escaped any hearings and accountability through retirement.
  •  The Chief has continuously rationalized police officers’ actions and avoided ever acknowledging that there were mass violations of people’s rights.  He has never apologized for the events of those few days, even when asked point blank to do so.
  •  He has minimized the significant abuses of power that occurred, by repeating that officers faced an immensely difficult task (which may be true, but is certainly not a justification for excessive use of force and violations of people’s rights), and by claiming that 20 or 30 hearings, when over 5000 Toronto Police officers served during the G20 weekend, is actually a low number.

Most importantly, by his continued reference to a “tribunal” and a “court of law” as the places where the evidence will be heard and where decisions will be based on fact and law (as opposed to “opinion,” which he implies is what the OIPRD has given), Chief Blair attempts to imply that decisions will be made by an arms-length, neutral court.

It’s not just that the Chief, himself, appoints the prosecutors and “adjudicators” for these hearings.

It is the Chief, himself, who has the final say for what happens to those officers.

In other words, if a finding of misconduct has been made by the person conducting the hearing, then it is the Chief who decides whether and what penalties that officer should face.  He can decide whether no action will be taken, whether the officer should lose a couple of days’ pay, or whether he or she should be dismissed from the police force. (see s. 84 of the Police Services Act.) In essence, the Chief is the final adjudicator.

This is hardly a model of neutral and impartial adjudication, especially since Bill Blair was the Chief during the G20.

The Chief has used the “tribunal” reference as a shield.  He has used it to defer and eschew any negative conclusions about what his officers and the police force did during the G20 weekend in Toronto.  He has used it to say that until the facts and issues are decided before a court of law, he can’t and won’t apologize, assign responsibility or admit that the police grossly breached people’s rights.

But all along, it has been open to the Chief to admit that people’s rights were violated by hundreds of police officers.  The proof has been at his fingertips.  No hearing, whatever he calls it, will provide him with more “objective” evidence than he already has.

Since his May 16th press conference, the Chief has taken a step to make the hearings appear more objective.

On Friday, May 19th, the Chief declared that he will ask a retired judge to serve as the hearing officer and will seek the “services of a former Crown Attorney” to prosecute the cases (this does not, in itself, mean that a Crown Attorney will conduct the prosecutions.)

It is, indeed, good news if the Chief is going outside the force to appoint the prosecutor and “adjudicator” for these hearings.  This step may make the hearing more objective, or at least give the appearance that they are more objective.

But the final disciplinary decision is still the Chief’s.

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Side-stepping, Misleading and Evading: Deciphering Chief Blair’s response to the OIPRD report on police behaviour during the 2010 G20

On May 16, 2012, Toronto’s Chief Bill Blair met with journalists to comment on the Ontario Independent Police Review Director’s report, Policing the Right to Protest, released earlier that day.  The report investigated complaints and made findings into the conduct of the Toronto police during the 2010 G20.  (You can see earlier postings on this topic here and here.) 

The Chief’s response, in my opinion, avoided responsibility, was at times evasive, at times unresponsive, and occasionally misleading.  Over the next few days, I will look at some of these problematic statements.  (One glaring problem a day, more or less)

Avoiding responsibility: the OIPRD report just expresses an “opinion.”

The OIPRD investigators painstakingly reviewed hundreds of hours worth of evidence (police officers’ notes, videos, photographs, interviews, and so on) before coming to the conclusion that during the G20, police officers did violate citizens’ individual and civil rights and liberties and also that excessive force was used on a number of occasions.

Despite the abundance of video footage (for example, the videos that show hundreds of innocent protestors and by-standers under siege by the police for several hours at Queen and Spadina), and personal accounts that confirm, with certainty, that people’s rights were violated, Chief Blair calls the report’s conclusion on this issue merely an “opinion.”

Chief Blair was asked by one journalist whether or not he accepts to rejects the report’s finding that people’s rights were trampled on by police officers (at 17:03 in the video, below).  To this, the Chief responds,

“Well, I think that it certainly requires a hearing.  And generally, I think overwhelmingly, the rights of our citizens were protected that weekend.  There are individual instances where the OIPRD has said that some things, some individual conduct, may have been a violation of rights.  I think that needs to be heard, in a hearing.  Evidence, not opinion, but evidence needs to be brought forward.  And it needs to be brought forward in a hearing according to the rule of law and due process.”

True enough that when the OIPRD refers a matter to the Chief, a hearing under the Police Services Act needs to be conducted before a finding can be made, under that Act, against a police officer.  And yes, the OIPRD’s investigative conclusions are based on a “reasonable belief.”    But to call the OIPRD’s finding that rights were violated during the G20 an “opinion,” and then to imply that, therefore, one cannot conclude that rights were violated on a large-scale, is a mark of denial, evasion, or of eschewing responsibility.  The Chief’s refusal to admit as fact that citizens’ rights were violated, often at-large, and his declaration that the findings in the report merely express an “opinion,” confirm that he continues to deflect and avoid responsibility.  

To many, Chief Blair’s reaction does not come at a surprise, but reflects a continuing sad state of affairs. 

The Chief has said that he is committed to “learning lessons” for the future.  Before he can learn anything, though, he must be willing to call things by their correct names.  Until the Chief (and indeed, our political leaders) are willing to call police conduct during the G20 what it was: improper, excessive, shameful, frightening, and unlawful, we are not going to be learning any lessons for the future.

(next….There Is a Tribunal to deal with police complaints?)

Chief Blair’s press conference May 16, 2012


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Empathy: Tap It or Teach It, but Definitely Integrate It

Empathy is poised to become the buzzword of the 21st century– the defining trait of our social and political evolution.  Empathy will be to this century what “rights” was to the 20th century and “equality” was to the 19th century. 

As a word, a concept, and a goal empathy is omnipresent.  From parenting newborns to teaching college students, to training doctors and employees of profit-driven ventures, to effecting radical political and social change, empathy is becoming the prevailing philosophy. 

Organizations, such as Roots of Empathy and Seeds of Empathy, design and bring to schools programs aimed at teaching primary school children and preschoolers to have more empathy.  A school in Cambridge, Ontario, recently raised $6000 to hold an anti-bullying workshop which focuses on building empathy.[i]    Yet another initiative, “The Empathy Project” of Capital University in Ohio, aims to teach college-aged students to have greater empathy.[ii]   Political theory students study Franz de Waal’s The Age of Empathy as part of their university curriculum.[iii]  Author and political advisor, Jeremy Rifkin, explores all aspects of empathy and encourages that we embrace empathy to improve our world.[iv] And empathy has entered the profit-driven workplace and is making an impact, with books such as Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Wide-spread Empathy.[v]  

Yet, at the political level, whether domestic or international, we seem to be shirking from empathy and moving toward more division, blaming, and short-sighted selfishness.  Political divisions appear to be getting starker and more hostile.  In the United States, Canada, and France, political parties that emphasize separation and encourage the “us” against “them” approach flourish.  In Canada, our government and, as a result, we, move toward a more individualistic and vengeful justice system, and build more prisons and impose harsher and longer jail terms, rather than develop effective programs that will prevent crime and will heal those affected by crime, including offenders.  And in an era of cut-backs, international aid and social programs are among the first targets of our political representatives.

It appears that the more some groups in society move toward inclusion, understanding, togetherness and empathy, the more other segments, politicians and governments recoil and seek to distinguish themselves from and set themselves above others. 

Do all human beings have the capacity to identify with others and their experiences? Or are we doomed to an everlasting conflict between those who want to understand and include and those who want to judge and exclude?  Can we teach empathy to everyone?

There are certainly findings that suggest that empathy can be lost or eroded over time.  A study from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor concludes that over the last 30 years, college students’ self-reported levels of empathy have decreased and their narcissism has increased.   Several studies have shown that medical students becomes less empathic over the course of medical school, while medical interns become less empathic as their internship progresses.     Other anecdotes suggest that while many young people participate in community and volunteer work, the lessons learned do not stick-  they do not translate into behavioural changes and routine activities where a person can make a real difference.  

But there are also encouraging studies.   Teachers whose students have participated in the Roots of Empathy programs report a decrease in aggressive behaviour by their students.  They also exhibit higher levels of pro-social behaviour.[vi]   Furthermore, efforts into teaching empathy to medical students and to people in the workforce appear to lead to some success.

Like so many other skills, empathy is best learned at a young age.    And what is more reassuring is that we don’t actually need to “teach” empathy.  Unlike knowledge of certain concepts, such as quantum mechanics or even reading, we are not born void of empathy.  We do not need to have our cup filled with empathy from scratch.  We appear to be born, “soft-wired”, as Jeremy Rifkin describes it, with empathy.  We may have different levels of predisposition to empathy, but we all have it, at some level.  Studies of primates and of human babies confirm this finding.[vii]

Since every healthy baby is born with empathy, the task for parents, educators, and the rest of us is to ensure that we do not repress that empathy.  We must encourage and “hard-wire” the empathy that exists in our children, rather than to replace it with anger, jealousy, greed, and a desire for material success that necessitates keeping others down.  And there are plenty of resources to help parents and educators in this invaluable quest. 

True, not all children possess the same level of empathy.  And they definitely differ in their abilities to act on that empathy.  But our acceptance of children’s different abilities, in particular their capacity to share and show kindness, and our appreciation for and encouragement of such kindness—will ultimately encourage more empathy from them. 

What will all this empathy honing and cheerleading mean for justice issues?  What will happen if we change our approach to crime and justice from an individualistic, punishment-oriented one, toward one that uses empathy and brings together offenders and victims, allowing each to understand and feel the pain of the other?  Are the accusations of Canada’s Conservative Party, for example, that anyone who opposes more punitive responses to crime doesn’t care about victims justified?  Are fears that integrating empathy into crime and justice issues make us “soft on crime” valid? 

Empathy is not a new concept in justice issues.  Different societies have, at different times, dealt with crime in an empathetic, cohesive manner, one which contrasts immensely with our own punishment-oriented, individualistic and largely ineffective means of dealing with crime.  Healing circles have been used by Native peoples for centuries.  And the efforts to implement victim-offender reconciliation in the western criminal justice system have been growing. 

The Toronto Star recently ran an encouraging good news story about a high school in Toronto which has, for the past few years, used restorative conferences (much like healing circles and victim-offender reconciliation) to deal with conflicts among students.[viii]  The project has had visibly positive results. 

The proof for the effectiveness of restorative justice, which focuses on the involvement, understanding and empathy of all parties affected (not just one “offender” and one “victim”) is abundant.  Restorative justice is more effective as a means of increasing understanding and accountability, decreasing recidivism, and encouraging individuals and communities to work together. 

We must embrace and encourage empathy in our young, in ourselves, and especially, in our political representatives.  Empathic governing is simply better and more effective at achieving our goals of democracy, equality, peace and security.

Empathy begets cooperation.  Empathy thwarts adversity.  We need to hone it, to implement it, to use it to effect radical social and political change and to reach a higher level in human evolution. 

And then, in about a hundred years or so, we will latch on to the next big idea.

Take a look:

RSA Animate video on The Empathic Civilization:

Jeremy Rifkin on TVO:

The Six Habits of Highly Empathic People:

[i] Kate Hammer, “Schools Teach Empathy As a Way to Combat Bullying.”, Wednesday, April 25, 2012.

[ii]  Go to:, or check this article on Dispatch.

[iii] For example, students of Political Theory at the University of Toronto study Frans De Waal’s Age of Empathy.

[iv] Rifkin, Jeremy.  The Emphatic Civilization. (Putnam, 2009). You can aslo see portions of Jeremy Rifkin’s appearance on TVO’s The Agenda by clicking here.  Or watch the RSA Animate summary here.

[v]Patnaik, Dev, and Mortensen, Peter.  Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Wide-Spread Empathy (Pearson Education, 2009.)

[vi]Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Smith, V., Anat Zaidman-Zait, A., & Hertzman, C. (2011) “Promoting Children’s Prosocial Behaviours in School: Impact of the “Roots of Empathy” Program on the Social and Emotional Competence of School-Aged Children.”     See also
[vii] See Rifkin’s TVO interview, supra and Frans de Waal’s Age of Empathy

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Will Somebody Hold the Police Accountable?

After a lengthy investigation, the Ontario Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), Ontario’s civilian body responsible for handling complaints against the police, has concluded that police officers unlawfully jumped on, kicked, beat, shoved, threatened, mocked, and broke the nose of Adam Nobody while apparently affecting an arrest during the 2010 G8/G20 events in Toronto.  In a report released on Friday, January 20th, the OIPRD asserts that the use of such force was excessive and discreditable conduct, and recommends that the officers involved face disciplinary hearings.[i]

But the OIPRD’s report and recommendation come more than six months after the organization retained the file, which means that the officers involved will not automatically face a disciplinary hearing—the Toronto Police Services Board, the civilian oversight body for the Toronto Police, must effectively approve that such a hearing be held.

And what is the response of the police union to the recommendation that the officers who beat a handcuffed and sometimes unconscious Nobody face disciplinary hearings?  “We stand behind them,” said Toronto Police Union President Mike McCormack.[ii]  He has urged the Police Services Board not to hold disciplinary hearings against the officers, citing the 6 month delay.

It is no surprise that officers take advantage of every tool provided by the law.  But given that it is the police’s job to ensure that people who commit unlawful acts actually face the consequences of their actions and are held accountable under the law,  we are justified in asking, “Why is it that when the police commit unlawful acts, the union demands that we let it go?”  We might be excused for reacting indignantly to the union’s stance—a stance which seeks to put police officers above the law.

And what can we expect from the Police Services Board?  It’s the Board that now has the power to decide whether a notice of hearing can be served on the officers in question.  In effect, without the Board’s approval, there will be no hearing. The Police Services Act states that, in order to grant its approval, the Board must be of the opinion that “under the circumstances,” it was reasonable to delay serving the notice of hearing. [iii]

Surely the circumstances do exist here.  The case is one that involves important public policy issues dealing with the public’s right to protest, policing such protests, police tactics, and police officers’ beliefs in how citizens who, in their opinion, have broken the law, can be treated.

Furthermore, the volume of evidence that the OIPRD investigators had to sift through was high- significantly more than evidence from the run-of-the mill complaints that make their way to the OIPRD.  The OIPRD interviewed the complainant, interviewed or read reports from 5 other civilian witnesses, 12 police officer witnesses, and the 8 respondent police officers.  It reviewed audio and video evidence, four “volumes” of information from the Special Investigations Unit, the notebook entries of the police officers, and numerous other pieces of evidence.  This voluminous amount of evidence surely justifies a longer investigation period.

Finally, as the report makes no reference to the topic, we do not know if some of the “delay” during the investigation resulted from the slow or reluctant co-operation of the police witnesses, themselves.

When the legislature set out the limitation period it was likely contemplating the more common and straight-forward cases of complaints against one or two police officers.  It is unlikely that the legislature intended a 6-month limitation to apply to cases where many police officers, under an atmosphere of confusion and “mayhem,” as some witnesses described, were the subject of complaints.

In essence, the limitation period ensures that investigations are conducted efficiently and do not drag on indefinitely.  There is no blanket rule preventing investigations from continuing beyond the 6-month period. Under the circumstances, the OIPRD’s report has been produced in a timely manner.  But union President Mike McCormack wants the TPSB to rule otherwise.

McCormack’s position is offensive.  It demands that police officers who have engaged in illegal (and arguably, criminal) acts not be held professionally accountable for their conduct.  It perpetuates the negative and justified public perception that police officers protect one another no matter how egregious the acts of their members may have been.  The union’s position undermines the credibility of the police and the public’s trust and confidence in the police force.  In the end, though, the law allows McCormack to voice his opinion, but the same law grants the Police Services Board the power to approve that the hearings be held.

So what should we do?  How should citizens who want to ensure that the police conduct their job honourably and without resorting to unnecessary violence react?  Can we do anything to prevent the further erosion of the public’s confidence in the police?  Can we ensure that the Police Services Board grants its approval for the hearings?

Yes.  In this case, there is tangible, simple and effective action that we can all take.  We must let the T.P.S.B. and, in particular the three Toronto City Councillors who serve on the T.P.S.B., know that the officers who abused their power in their dealings with Mr. Nobody must be held accountable.[iv]  At the very least, they should face a disciplinary hearing.  Write to the Board and to the City Councillors and ask that they use their discretion to hold the police officers accountable for their actions, and not to protect officers who grossly abuse their powers.   And then, if and when the T.P.S.B. does approve that the hearings be held, follow up to ensure that the disciplinary hearings lead to meaningful consequences.

Demand that our law enforcement agents abide by the laws that they enforce.

[i] Currently, the report is available through the CBC at the following link:

[ii] Adrian Morrow and Tu Thanh Ha, Watchdog accuses officers of excessive force at G20, The Globe and Mail, Saturday, January 21, 2012 at A15.

[iii] Police Services Act, R.S.O. 1990, C.P.15, s.83(17)

[iv] The three Toronto City Councillors who serve on the TPSB are Councillor Mike Thompson, who is also the Vice-Chair of the TPSB (his e-mail address is:, Councillor Chin Lee (, and Counciller Frances Nunziata (  For contact information for other City Councillors, go to:


Filed under criminal justice, G20 Posts, G20 posts, resources, and other sites, Police abuse of power, Police oversight, Uncategorized