Knowing the difference makes a healthy society

Morley Lymburner
August 22, 2014
By Morley Lymburner
Police officers and soldiers have different duties; a fact both must understand when the other takes over. This principle of police and military being willing to relinquish control – and take it back – is what makes a stable and safe society and country. The events in Ferguson, Missouri dramatically emphasize this point.

by Morley Lymburner

Police officers and soldiers have different duties; a fact both must understand when the other takes over. This principle of police and military being willing to relinquish control – and take it back – is what makes a stable and safe society and country. The events in Ferguson, Missouri dramatically emphasize this point.

We must get back to basics and understand there is little virtue in confusing the police and military role. If there is no difference, as some suggest, why are they separate entities? Would it not be far more convenient and fiscally responsible to simply let police handle the military function during civil disobedience?

Major events over the past century have affected and afflicted both the Canadian military and civilian police. Canadian policing took an abrupt turn just after the First World War, when de-mobbed but still military trained former soldiers backfilled the ranks of police forces across the country. This was once again reinforced after World War Two when huge numbers of former soldiers filled most civil service jobs.

Over the years Canada de-militarized dramatically while the US increased its military prowess through a mandatory draft during the 1950s and '60s. It still has a hybrid of this same system but rooted in the state administered national guard. As a result almost all US police agencies have military discipline, structures and outlook and officers are comfortable with this command and control style.

The opposite scenario exists here. Almost all Canadian police officers are trained from the ground up to a civilian policing style. Command and control is seen as subservient to individual initiative but they are taught the rudimentaries of military discipline. I'll let you judge which system is better.

During the '90s Canada started placing police in active war zones. These officers were confronted with a function they were not trained to handle, causing trauma and stressors they had not anticipated when volunteering.

On the other side of the coin Canada’s over emphasis on placing soldiers on the “peace keeper” pedestal, which dates back to the mid '50s era, has obscured the purpose of the military. This not only confuses but also heaps far too much stress on the individual soldier and their otherwise straightforward function.

Soldiers are trained to fight but then informed they should work like police officers. This is bad strategy. It short circuits their military function and, in a multi-cultural country like Canada, confuses the roles of police and military in the minds of the public.

Both the military and police in Canada have been forced into unnatural positions, by design or circumstance, for which they do not traditionally function well. The current and past situation in Haiti is a fine example of the differing roles.

Canadian police officers were placed in Haiti in the early 90s to assist local law enforcement and guide them toward a proper policing function. The country's civil structures were suddenly put in great turmoil. The rule of law broke down, paramilitary units competed for control and the idea of simple policing was lost. This required a military response.

Once a semblance of order was restored, there was a need for the military to step back and police to resume day-to-day peace keeping. Police from Canada and other countries returned under a United Nations mandate to help re-establish a civilian law enforcement structure.

One of the fundamentals of modern policing, based on Peel's principles, is that a military organization should not conduct police work. Police officers are to be selected from the general population because they best understand the populace and day-to-day functioning of the society they watch over. It is this intimate knowledge which helps them prevent crime and keep the peace.

Police use force as a last resort – the vast majority of arrests an officer makes involve no resistance whatsoever. The organized use of force, and threats of it, is the primary (although far from singular) function of the military, and when called upon is either practiced or implemented daily.

The future of a well managed country rests in the hands of both police and the military – and the ability of police officers and soldiers to understand their appropriate roles. Ferguson helps to illustrate and underscore these principles.

Police made efforts to restore order and the rule of law. Once it was recognized they could not accomplish this goal the military stepped in to restore that order. Once order is re-established, the military bowed out gracefully and police resumed their work.

It should not be rocket science but too many people do not understand this.

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