The former police chief was lamenting the dangers street cops face these days. Today's proliferation of guns was unimaginable some 15 years ago when he was last in uniform, he said, and patrolling the streets today would make him really paranoid.
I agreed with him to a point but suggested that statistically the streets are not nearly as dangerous for cops as he might imagine. He looked somewhat surprised and I took this as my cue to continue. In the 25 years I was with the Toronto Police (formerly and awkwardly known as the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force), we lost 14 officers, I pointed out. Only three were lost in the 18 years since I left and the Toronto Police Honour Roll shows only 22 officers lost their lives in the line of duty in the 68 years prior to my signing up.
"Have you ever analyzed why this was?" the chief responded, looking dumbfounded. I admitted that I had not but like to point out the statistic when I hear people suggesting how tough it is out there today. We could credit improved training, better laws and equipment or improved supervision. It could also be due to a complete attitude and behaviour shift by the population and/or police – or perhaps the increase in immigrants wishing to keep a lower police profile. The depth and breadth of such an analysis could keep criminologists and other sooth sayers gainfully employed for years. To extricate myself from any deep philosophical debate I could simply say it is a combination of all of the above.
I do agree with the chief to a point, however, and feel that perhaps we need to analyze how really dangerous it can be for officers today. Although I was able to recite off the number of deaths I could not do a comparison of the 'walking wounded' that may be out there. The added pressures placed on officers today creates complications and commutations which never existed in my day. The public expectation of perfect police attacks officer psyche more than their bodies.
The conversation was very enlightening. Today's officers are trained to the max, the chief pointed out, and well taught what to expect when they reach the street. They have the best equipment and a head full of knowledge on subjects as varied as how to field strip a weapon to analyzing the psychological behaviours of many of the people they may encounter. In fact, they are trained to such a high degree, he said, that we actually now could be at a stage where mistakes are bound to happen more frequently. It is the old "weakest link in the chain" theory.
Use of force, for example, is far more complicated than it once was. Officers carry pepper spray, stun guns, night sticks and firearms. At one time you had only three choices – your hands, night stick or gun. Today the variables on use and caveats on when to use or not use these many options can be mind boggling.
In a high pressure situation the public, and even some managers, expects each of Canada's 67,000 police officers to work in a controlled and predictable fashion on every call, every shift, every day. Each officer must evaluate use of force options in split seconds during a potentially violent situation – and always come up with the right answer. This is only compounded by the calls where such considerations are not thought to be a factor until they suddenly develop, without warning.
I reflected on what he said and had to agree. What effect does all this have on the street copper, who knows cameras are everywhere today? Everyone with a cell phone is their own "media journalist". Every person who views a "preceived" screw-up by cop can now post that perceived mistake to an audience of millions in mere seconds.
Our conversation ended in a discussion of methods to counteract the Internet phenomenon. If officers are to be confronted by the most spectacular five seconds of an incident on the Internet, it would be nice if they could counter with the previous 120 seconds. Although loathe to do so, I had to admit that the day of officers wearing body cameras has probably arrived.
Can we find one more clip on that uniform please?