Taking a sober, deep look at Canadian policing

Morley Lymburner
March 31, 2010
By Morley Lymburner
We have heard very little about the progress of changes to the RCMP recommended by the Brown Task Force since its report was released more than two years ago. In fact, getting RCMP HQ people to even call us back with good news has been a challenge in my office. So much so that for the past year we have had to dig up our own good news about the Mounties from our own sources. That is why I was pleased to see Thin Bruised Line, a new book by Doug Clark, if only to stir things up.

We have heard very little about the progress of changes to the RCMP recommended by the Brown Task Force since its report was released more than two years ago.

In fact, getting RCMP HQ people to even call us back with good news has been a challenge in my office. So much so that for the past year we have had to dig up our own good news about the Mounties from our own sources. That is why I was pleased to see Thin Bruised Line, a new book by Doug Clark, if only to stir things up.

It has been just over a year since the release of Paul Palango’s controversial book, Dispersing the Fog. Clark’s book has a lot of similarities to it and yet differs considerably in its approach. The former tackles the towers of power and the latter gets into the gritty grunt work challenges of grass-roots police work.

Palango concludes his book by pining the loss of investigative journalists and the art of investigative journalism. I was pleased to find that Clark is not only an award winning investigative journalist but also a teacher, published author and former emergency services worker. With this in mind, I commenced reviewing his book with enthusiasm.

The Thin Bruised Line, unlike Palango’s book, places the entire field of policing in Canada under a microscope and dispenses as much as possible with the crystal ball. The book reveals it is not only the RCMP that needs a sober second look. The broad scope of Clark’s research unceremoniously places all police services in Canada on notice that it is time to re-think everything about how the job is done, who does it, who pays for it and who should and should not control it.

Clark hasn’t as much revealed stunning insights as much as held a mirror up to show us a condensed version of the blemishes which need correcting. The nine chapters cover a wide range of topics, including women in policing, First Nations policing, organized crime, recruitment, the media, racial profiling and the new populist styles of police management. Much of the content analyses media and inquiry reports, underscored by extensive quotes from Canada’s most influential police moguls. A good number of interviews are included with retired senior officers from many police agency backgrounds, and much of what they said enlightened me.

One small section in the introduction caused me to pause and I feel it is worth repeating.

Much has changed in policing because much has changed in Canadian society and the police are expected to reflect our diversity and our values – particularly the impact of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on a country founded on “Peace, Order and Good Government” and the rise of human rights tribunals where the accused seem to be presumed guilty until proven innocent. The “enlightened” response to rename police forces as “services” does little to demonstrate progress or enlightenment and nothing to enhance officer and public safety. In an era of mission statements, slick slogans and organizational values, the police role risks falling from the mandate of catching bad guys to the doomed bid to be all things to all people.

The reality for police today is that any problem – criminal, social, financial, political and even some health issues – left unresolved by agencies created and funded to address them, will be dumped in the police’s lap and they will be told: “Fix this.” Yet when they do – as they almost always do, if only to slap a band-aid on the symptom of a larger problem not of their creation (police can always get a person to a shelter but they can’t cure homelessness) – there is scant praise or recognition for a job well done.

The police must simply suck it up and resume their frantic call-to-call duties patrolling our city streets and rural roads. But if the police seem to be struggling to redefine their identity, was it stolen or crippled in a self-inflicted wound? And what does the answer to that question mean to the men and women on the front lines? The thin blue line has become a thin bruised line... grayed, frayed and stretched to the breaking point.

It is obvious that the RCMP will require a considerable overhaul to make it in the new millennium but Clark’s book also points out that the rest of Canadian policing can not be too smug about how it goes about its business. Here is a book worthy of the attention of all police officers and anyone interested in what Canadian policing is – and what it should be.

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