Tag Archives: Police abuse of power

When Videos of Police Abuse of Power Are Not Enough, Citizens Must Act

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 Because of the video footage, the charges against the civilian are often withdrawn by the Crown Attorney.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.

In the last two weeks in Canada, two such videos have surfaced. One involved a Toronto man, the other an Innu man in Unamen Shipu, in eastern Quebec.  

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.

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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: http://www.cbc.ca/news/pdf/OIPRDInvestigative-Nobody01132012.pdf

[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_thompson@toronto.ca), Councillor Chin Lee (councillor_lee@toronto.ca), and Counciller Frances Nunziata (councillor_nunziata@toronto.ca).  For contact information for other City Councillors, go to: http://app.toronto.ca/im/council/councillors.jsp.


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New Policies Won’t End Police Abuse of Power. What Will?

It’s a familiar cycle: police violence, followed by a public outcry, followed by one or more investigations (or, in very rare circumstances, an inquiry), denial of responsibility by the perpetrators and their forces, a slew of recommendations, some of which may develop into policies, a few rare ones that lead to legislation, and, finally, a burdensome and lengthy implementation process. By the time the implementation stage is reached, the memory of the initial tragic events is a blur to most people. The state actors who engaged in the aggression have indignantly rationalized their actions. And in the interim, there have been more acts of unacceptable and unjustifiable state violence.

Many such events have occurred in Canada in the past few years: police violence and abuse of power during the G20; the death of Ashley Smith while in the custody of an oppressive, neglectful and abusive prison system; the R.C.M.P. beatings of prisoners (on the radar only because they were caught on video). But despite all the effort, thought, cooperation and money that goes into reviewing or investigating these horrific abuses of power, there is not a smidgen of a hope that there will be enough fundamental change so that we can avoid the same tragedies in the future.

When there are investigations, and if such investigations are lead by civilians, as opposed to the police (who often excuse the wrongful or criminal behaviour of their brethren), they usually end with a list of recommendations. These recommendations rarely lead to new policies and laws. But even if new policies are implemented in response to the recommendations, what then?

Here is where I get cynical.

Changes in laws and policies are useful and are indicators of our moral compass. But they achieve little. They give false hope.

Law and policies, alone, do not make for a just society. They do not prevent police abuse of power or prison guard disdain and apathy.

During the G20 summit in Toronto, the police knew that what they were doing to protestors and non-protestors alike violated our basic Charter rights. They knew that nearly all the people they were detaining or arresting had not committed a criminal offence. They knew that threatening rape, breaking off someone’s prosthetic leg, leaving people in the pouring rain, holding handcuffed people without food, water, or bathrooms, or caging them in cold, crammed cells was all illegal, contrary to existing policies, and otherwise inhumane and unacceptable in our society. Yet they did it all anyway.

So far, the police have rationalized their behaviour. They continue to reject criticism. They do not see themselves as answerable to the people they harmed or to Canadians, in general. They ignore the call for accountability.

For any police officers who were disgusted by what was going on –and I have no doubt that there were many– none have had the courage to come forward. That is a sad but not surprising reality, as speaking up against their brothers would be career suicide. I hope that, in time, some of them will work up the courage to break ranks and describe what they know.

As for the guards and prison officials in Ashley Smith’s case, had they wished, they could have seen that her deteriorating mental condition was a direct result of her incarceration. They could have seen the oppressive and horrendous consequences of her mistreatment and prolonged solitary confinement.

Yet they went about their daily business. They ran the jails, but did not care for the inmates. There were plenty of regulations in place to prevent a death like Ashley’s, but none of them helped in the face of the tired, frustrated, apathetic, resentful or short-sighted institutional staff.

History and experience teach us that governments and the police can ignore, interpret and revise rules, policies, and rights to suit their own ends. In Western democratic societies, we have placed obstacles to prevent such abuse of power. But those procedural safeguards and entrenched rights are often seen merely as that- obstacles to overcome. They were overcome during the G20, and they will be overcome again, unless a much more fundamental transformation takes place.

What will lead to such a transformation? What is that key factor that will ensure that abuse at the hands of the state does not occur?

Empathy and empathy training. They are the only means and hope for fundamental change.

If people in power are trained to deal with others with empathy, then even bad laws, such as the Regulation under the Public Works Protection Act which was enacted for the benefit of the police during the summit, would cause less harm and damage. If a cop has empathy and basic human respect for others, he won’t threaten, mock, or use abusive language, even when attempting to search people under a Regulation that should have never been revived from its war-time tomb.

If people in authority exercise empathy, they will jump to the rescue of those who need them, regardless of institutional rules or protocol. With empathy, they will not dehumanize another because she or he is drunk, is black, is homeless, is Native, is a prostitute, or is the voice of dissent.

But our individualistic, legalistic society distrusts such apparently vague and relational principles. We don’t trust one another to treat each other with respect and empathy, so we rely solely on the rule of law- a cold, “objective” law. We’ve surrendered our rights and well-being entirely to laws and policies. We’ve put our trust and hope in our governments and their ability to legislate what’s good. We’ve abandoned notions of community, of taking care of one another, of empathy.

But without empathy, even good laws and policies will be put to bad use.

People fear that an officer with empathy will be weak. We expect our police to be tough, and we equate being tough with being uncaring, even callous. But there is nothing that supports the notion that an officer cannot do his or her job competently and properly– cannot investigate, apprehend, and arrest someone– while at the same time respecting a person as a human being, despite the officers’ dislike of the actions attributed to that person.

Police can arrest an alleged thief without beating her up or mocking her. They can calm a street person who may be breaching the peace and is off his medication without dragging him to an isolated area, beating him, or shooting him. They can deal with protestors whom they want dispersed without acting like there is an epic battle taking place at the corner of Queen and Spadina.

Kettling at Queen and Spadina Photo by Jonas Naimark

 What police officer would want his own family members subjected to those same conditions that protestors and by-standers were subjected to during the summit? What jail guard would want her own ill child jailed and then shipped from institution to institution without any help?

Empathy and compassion would not make a weak police force. On the contrary, in our democratic society, such qualities would make for better policing. Treating others with dignity would even have the added benefit that the police and many members of society want: more convictions against people who have committed offences, whose charges will not be stayed (dismissed, basically) because the cops broke the accused’s jaws, beat him up, denied him medical attention, and then lied about it.

If every weapon-carrying or other representative of state power treated those under his/her control with empathy, our entire system, including our jails, would be not only more humane, but also more effective. The people leaving those institutions might come out with better conflict resolution skills, a greater trust in other human beings, a clearer hope, or a greater determination to change.

The police attempt to engage our empathy when they break laws or breach our rights. “The police had a tough job to do under very difficult circumstances,” is an oft repeated slogan of the police when describing what occurred during the G20. And, in fact, we (the courts, the media, the public) often do treat officers with empathy when they break the laws. If every individual officer and every police force is trained to incorporate that same level of empathy into their own work, then we would have much better relations with our police, far fewer breaches of fundamental rights, no more criminal activity than we do now, and a far more civil society.

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