Police and military

Morley Lymburner
January 29, 2010
By Morley Lymburner
The duties of police officers and soldiers are completely different and both must understand this 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. I focused last month on the unreasonableness of placing police officers in war zones. A few readers felt this placed both police and the military in a negative light, which was not my intention.

The duties of police officers and soldiers are completely different and both must understand this 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.

I focused last month on the unreasonableness of placing police officers in war zones. A few readers felt this placed both police and the military in a negative light, which was not my intention.

Post traumatic stress disorder is a serious problem in the military and is multiplied many times over for police officers placed in a war zone. Far from being negative about either function, my main point is that we must get back to basics and understand there is little virtue in confusing the two roles. If there is no difference between police officers and soldiers, as some would suggest, why are they separate entities? Would it not be far more convenient and fiscally responsible to simply let the military handle the policing function?

Over the past century major events have affected and afflicted both the Canadian military and civilian police.

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. Training a person to fight and be a soldier and then telling them later that they should work like a police officer 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 population.

Policing in Canada took an abrupt turn just after the First World War with the de-mobbed military trained people backfilling the ranks of police forces across the country. This was once again reinforced after World War II when huge numbers of former soldiers were filling most all civil service jobs. During the 90s Canada started placing police in active war zones. This duty confronted these officers with a function they were not trained to handle and once again brought on trauma and stressors these individuals had not anticipated when they volunteered.

As you can see 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 of police and the military.

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 had previously been in great turmoil. Paramilitary units competed for control and the idea of simple policing was lost. 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. A United Nations mandate sent in police from Canada and other countries to help establish a civilian law enforcement structure.

In 1991 another military coup deposed the elected leader and the country was once again plunged into a form of civil war. The UN withdrew all police personnel, recognizing the limitations of police work in such an atmosphere.

Two years later an international police presence was once again sought and sent, and the work these officers have done to re-establish order in the country has been tremendous. The military largely restored the basics of peace and order, paving the way for police to take over the day to day work of maintaining it.

Haitian society has now returned to a state of disorder and police must step back and let the military handle things until some order is restored. This is a hybrid situation, with no organized insurrection. The military function in this case is mass assistance, which police can not provide alone. Once the basics – food, shelter and water – have been restored, the population can focus on the other things needed to rebuild their society. Basic police presence will once again be the primary need.

One of the fundamentals of modern policing is that a military organization should not conduct police work. Police officers were to be selected from the general population because they best understood that population and the day-to-day functioning of the society they policed or watched over. It was this intimate knowledge which helped 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 is the primary (although far from singular) function of the military, and is either practiced or implemented daily.

The future of the Haitian people rests in the hands of both police and the military – and the ability of officers and soldiers to understand their appropriate roles. It is important for Canadians in general and police in particular to understand the differences between the roles.

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