It has sadly become a familiar chain of events:
Officers charge civilian with assaulting a police officer.
Video (either surveillance, or taped by a civilian) surfaces: it shows the officers beating up the same person whom they have charged. That person is helpless and under police control; he or she is neither resisting nor assaulting the police.
The civilian, accused of assaulting the police, is dragged through the court system for months. Because of the video footage, the charges against the civilian are often withdrawn by the Crown Attorney. Occasionally, some of these officers are charged or disciplined. But the videos, the public outcries, the disciplinary measures or the criminal charges against the officers do not seem to serve as a deterrent to police officers prone to abusing their powers.
And the events are repeated.
Both of these videos come on the heels of the 10-year anniversary of the Said Jama Jama case, one of the first Canadian cases that I can recall where the police were surreptitiously recorded by a civilian holding a small camera. Jama Jama, a young Toronto man, was charged with assaulting a police officer and causing a disturbance. The officer said that Jama Jama had assaulted him, and that Jama’s own injuries were caused from his involvement in an earlier fight. Jama denied these allegations, and claimed that the officer had punched him in the face. The tourist who had video-taped the interactions provided the tape to the defence. And that video-tape clearly showed an officer punching Jama Jama in the face, while the young man was standing, arms down, not resisting and not fighting the police. Significantly, but not unusually, the police had denied punching the young man until the video surfaced.
The video led to the withdrawal of charges against Jama Jama. The lying officer was charged, and later convicted of assaulting him.
Since the Jama Jama case, there have been numerous incidents were the police have been caught on video in their lies and in their abuse of civilians. Some of the more publicized cases include: the beating of Stacey Bond in a police station by the Ottawa police; the multitude of recorded assaults and abuses of power by the Toronto police during the G20 in 2010; the Taser-related death of Robert Dziekanski, a confused, helpless, frightened man in the Vancouver airport; the severe beating of an Edmonton man who was under police control; the unjustified pepper spraying of protestors by a Montreal police officer; and a Vancouver officer who kicked a high, helpless, half-dressed man several times.
These cases prove two realities: First, that the proliferation of cellphone cameras is increasingly catching those meant to serve and protect us in acts of violence and brutality against us. Second, catching the police red-handed has not stopped police abuse of power.
Videos, law suits, inquests, inquiries and public outcries — none of these seem to have shaken the intractable police conviction that some civilians deserve to be beaten by the police, and that the police can act with impunity.
The blue code of silence remains impermeable. It seems that officers remain reluctant to report abuses of power by their colleagues, fearing retaliation or repercussions.
Police departments and chiefs appear to treat the videos as just another public relations challenge.
But the immeasurable negative impact of the police conduct persists: The public’s faith and trust in the police is undermined, the injured citizen suffers mental, emotional, and physical harm, and his or her family bear the long-term negative consequences. And the public foots much of the bill for the lengthy and costly judicial process, including the cost of the officer’s defence.
So what should citizens and ethically conscious police officers do? Simply shrug and accept that with power, comes abuse of power? Should we resign ourselves to the bleak conclusion that a certain percentage of the police force will always act criminally, themselves, and that the rest will remain silent?
Police culture CAN change. It is not intractable. But it will only change through the political power of engaged citizens.
We must be vigilant in ensuring that our voices, concerns and solutions are both heard and implemented — by police services boards, police chiefs, and politicians. We must demand that our political representatives take leadership and have the courage to address the problem of police abuse of power.
It is paramount that police education includes extensive training and focus on the de-escalation of conflict through peaceful, rather than violent means. Policing students must learn and internalize non-aggressive conflict resolution skills. Officers must be reminded over and over that their position of power, and their involvement in risky situations, does not grant them permission to abuse civilians, regardless of what such civilians are alleged to have committed. Police education and training and police leaders must repeatedly underscore the notion that the police are there to rationally and neutrally investigate and make arrests when legally justified, not to pass judgment or exact justice.
Respect for all human beings must be a prerequisite to becoming an officer, just as much as physical fitness and the ability to make quick decisions are requirements.
In addition, police officers must be genuinely encouraged, supported and permitted to report other officers who abuse their power.
Officers must have regular training and support in dealing with stress, so that the pressures of their jobs and their personal lives do not translate into aggression against those who question their authority.
The proliferation of these videos can lead to positive developments in the way we police. But that positive change will only come if citizens continue to demand that our police services and our politicians take ownership of the problem and show leadership in its resolution.