Policing by consent

Morley Lymburner
October 08, 2014
By Morley Lymburner
Eugène François Vidocq, the founder of French policing, encouraged and espoused a police service devoid of military affiliation. Later, Sir Robert Peel agreed. Both men argued that the establishment and maintenance of policing must be by public consent. How does policing today measure up to their standards? There certainly has been a slow erosion but things can be done to narrow the gap and increase the public's confidence that local police still seek and appreciate their approval and consent.

Eugène François Vidocq, the founder of French policing, encouraged and espoused a police service devoid of military affiliation. Later, Sir Robert Peel agreed. Both men argued that the establishment and maintenance of policing must be by public consent.

How does policing today measure up to their standards? There certainly has been a slow erosion but things can be done to narrow the gap and increase the public's confidence that local police still seek and appreciate their approval and consent.

In most independent municipal police services the public's consent is more closely established by police services boards and their reports to municipal politicians and, through them, directly to the public. With wider jurisdictional policing this closer bond is sacrificed to a more remote nexus with the provinces or federal government through more distant and less accessible representatives.

To be fair some municipal contract police allow for a "police committee" to watch over the manner in which officers function. The attendance to, or acknowledgement of, these committees has the appearance of being completely optional. The prevailing attitude is that police will hear the committee out but not necessarily do what it suggests. All depends on the approval of a higher, more ephemeral rank.

Cops were once hired by size and poverty level and the public didn't exactly hold them in high esteem. Policing was seen as a job that had to be done by someone. Boston once considered instituting a draft for police officers. Quite a contrast with policing by consent and Peels principles.

In today's environment of Walmart policing how much extra should we pay for more control? The public appears to be very accepting of "just-in-time policing" as long as the bill is kept as low as possible. Does cheaper policing mean we must surrender policing by consent? These communities really see police work as something akin to garbage disposal and sewage waste. "We want it to work but don't want to know the details."

If we truly believe in policing by consent perhaps it is time to give back to the community something tangible which will be appreciated and evoke enormous good will. I suggest using proceeds of crime money to do good in the community. Giving police committees or PSBs some authority over how to spend the money to help the community would go a long way toward giving residents a closer affinity with police.

Perhaps funds could be used to compensate victims of crime or assist Habitat for Humanity in helping a low income family turn their lives around? Another good-will gesture would be paying to restore houses severely damaged by grow ops. After all, the reason they go "underground," so-to-speak, is because the cops are otherwise too good at catching them.

I recently heard an emotional woman explain how her new home turned into a complete nightmare. She and her husband had not known it was a grow-op house until a neighbour told her several weeks after they moved in. She had noticed a musty or moldy smell but hadn't paid it much attention until one of her children began coughing and another developed hives. The nightmare had just begun.

The couple were heavily in debt, having paid close to top of the market price for the home, but had to somehow come up with another $40,000 for remediation.

Since its inception in 1976, Crime Stoppers has recovered many hundreds of millions of dollars worth of stolen property, helping capture wanted individuals and shutting down drug trafficking operations. A considerable amount of the money recovered through proceeds of crime is at least partially thanks to its efforts.

An all volunteer organization, Crime Stoppers volunteers spend countless hours looking for corporate sponsorship to help fund the operations and rewards. Likewise, volunteer groups working diligently on 24 hour suicide prevention hot-lines could benefit from a cash infusion.

Significant funds from police agencies through proceeds of crime would free volunteers from the countless hours they have to spend fundraising. Communities could set up liaison committees to disburse money to organizations meeting a certain crime prevention or reduction criteria. Monitoring by local police would be a confidence building exercise worthy of much public appreciation.

The RCMP alone has raked in more than $243 million from proceeds of crime revenue over the last 15 years. Most provinces have a similar process – in Ontario it's called provincial civil seizures and brings in around $30 million a year. Much of this money goes into general revenues, with some retained to buy equipment and pay for the programs of sponsoring agencies.

In an age that appears to be distancing itself from the early concepts of policing by public consent it's time for police to show a closer affiliation with the public and a much closer understanding of the public need.

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