Tag Archives: police

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: http://www.tbnewswatch.com/news/236937/Hobbs-apologizes )


“Thunder Bay Police ‘Insulted’ by Human Rights Complaint,” CBC news, Sept. 19, 2012  http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/story/2012/09/19/tby-human-rights-complaint.html

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


Smith, Jamie. “Sad State of Affairs,” tbnewswatch.com, 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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Filed under Collaboration, collaborative justice, Court congestion, Court delay, criminal justice, Restorative justice

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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