Policing has a parallax view to consider

Morley Lymburner
November 02, 2011
By Morley Lymburner
In a previous commentary I mentioned the parallax phenomenon. This is when your view of something is just as clear as everyone else but with a slight shift in angle. This attribute becomes apparent in policing around the world, as well as across a time continuum.

In a previous commentary I mentioned the parallax phenomenon. This is when your view of something is just as clear as everyone else but with a slight shift in angle. This attribute becomes apparent in policing around the world, as well as across a time continuum.

I was reminded of this phenomenon when approached about covering a story on the Toronto Police Service's efforts to train their counterparts in Afghanistan. By all appearances it is a country that is slowly developing an infrastructure that will sustain a more civil approach to law and order - but it has a long way to go.

There is a great gulf in style versus necessity in North American policing when compared to other parts of the world. That is to say that the style of policing in any society fills the vacuum that exists at any given time or place. 

To understand this principle one need only look at the North American policing style after World War Two. Many millions of soldiers were being "de mobbed" and reintegrated into society. It was a time of high anxiety for both the returning military and political leaders. 

The soldiers were not only now unemployed but had been trained to take human lives and/or were suffering from the after-effects of doing so. Couple this with surviving the Great Depression and one can see the type of police officer required to keep order in the streets. They had to be big and tough enough to dish out a form of 'street justice' that would never see the inside of a courtroom. A 'routine' arrest in those days more often than not came with a few bruises, cuts and broken bones on both sides of the equation. 

After a couple of decades those rough and tumble sorts mellowed, as did policing. For police officers familiar with those days, it was a simple matter of adjust, quit or retire. I began my policing career at the tail end of this era and had to come to terms with both styles. Understanding where we had come from wasn't easy. The daily bump and grind of police work often had me scratching my head wondering if there was a better way... and finding a better way was not encouraged.

Today the tough, pugilistic cop on the beat has been replaced with officers more willing to lay charges and go through the court processes. This is only because the people they confront are more attuned to this type of treatment. Civil rights and liberties have replaced the street justice deterrent of the past and officers are trained to address this style and act accordingly. Today we live in a society that endorses most police actions because they reflect the tone and humour of the majority of the population.

Although good police practices are attainable in Canada, this is not so in much of the rest of the world, where policing is stuck in the post Second World War style - or worse. Most males in these societies are, or have been, trained in military style disciplines of kill or be killed. Even those with no military background are familiar with a multitude of easily available weaponry and none are strangers to death. Living conditions are substandard or precarious at best. 

North American police going to Afghanistan tend to learn more than they teach. Trainers find it difficult to teach the niceties of proper police practice because survival is their student's top priority. Crime rates are high because a starving or needy population can see no other hope than to take any advantage to survive. In these countries, the common law 'defence of necessity' takes on a scale too enormous for Canadians to comprehend. No third-world officer or even judge would easily understand many of the principles they are being taught without a great deal of effort from very talented teachers.

Our problem in Canada and the United States arises when we try to impose our value systems on countries who simply have no infrastructure to sustain them. We send police overseas to train people to be more like us. Today's officers could not function in the society of the 1930s and 40s, yet we train overseas police who live under similar or worse environments to use our standards. This may prepare them for North American policing theory but the danger is they may not be ready for the reality that awaits when they return home.

Any Canadian officers wishing for a secondment to places such as Afghanistan must consider this parallax view of third world countries if they hope to encourage evolution rather than revolution in police practices. After all, it is not police that form the society. They are merely a mirror and can only function successfully at a level their society will tolerate.

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