Tradition must be your servant

Morley Lymburner
September 30, 2009
By Morley Lymburner
Finding an Ontario Provincial Police badge the Queen had authorized more than 10 years ago – and then discovering the current senior OPP administration knew nothing about it – came as quite a shock to all concerned. The new badge was brought to my attention through a series of coincidences. I patiently awaited further information for several bewildering months before a senior member, sounding rather exasperated, called me. I bluntly asked about the implications of changing the force’s shoulder patch and crest. A new design would give it an internationally recognized symbol and much better control over its use and reproduction.

Finding an Ontario Provincial Police badge the Queen had authorized more than 10 years ago – and then discovering the current senior OPP administration knew nothing about it – came as quite a shock to all concerned.

The new badge was brought to my attention through a series of coincidences. I patiently awaited further information for several bewildering months before a senior member, sounding rather exasperated, called me. I bluntly asked about the implications of changing the force’s shoulder patch and crest. A new design would give it an internationally recognized symbol and much better control over its use and reproduction.

The officer challenged me to give him an argument for making a change. I addressed each impediment he raised until, with a sigh of resignation, he asked “what about – tradition? What can we say about tradition?”

Traditions do not come from some mysterious cloud on a mountaintop, I replied. They come from the activities and machinations of mortals and start when people decide they should. New traditions can be started just as past traditions were instituted. They can also be altered or dispensed with once their usefulness has ended or new realities dictate their demise.

The word “tradition” is much used and abused in police circles, appearing as the first level of attack upon the status quo and targeted with derision by agents of change. Supporters cite it as a quick dismissal; an escape clause for an issue or subject laced with potential problems or pitfalls. Too often it is used as a tactic to delay or transfer responsibility. In other situations, traditions are rooted in good common sense and help a well run organization.

It’s not easy to trace the roots and pitfalls of tradition. Its real purpose should be to advance an organization rather than the enduring legacy of an individual. The former bonds individuals while the latter does nothing but segregate, isolate and enslave groups or individuals. Carried to the extreme, a bad or poorly thought out tradition can be damaging and leave decades of embarrassment and tribulation.

Military traditions, which go back thousands of years, have proven to be double edged swords. Most are instituted to work with a command structure designed to train and move great numbers of individuals in predictable unison. Thoughtfully carried out, mostly to bond people toward a common cause, they become useful.

The damage occurs when tradition is implemented as living legacies of thoughtlessness and a monument to individuals. Hazing or practices which have long outlasted their usefulness and support an out of touch management style come to mind. Requiring RCMP members to wear spurs while driving patrol cars, for example, or refusing to arm RNC officers.

The military background of new inductees after the First World War brought a military style to policing. The military has a need to introduce “traditions” to make their organization unique – important when delineating nation from nation. The major difference in policing, however, is the enormous need for inter-agency co-operation and members to deal with citizens one-on-one. “Every officer is a four-star general” is the way I often describe it.

Where did the current OPP shoulder patch (three gold letters surrounded by a gold triangle) come from, I asked the senior officer. The short answer was 40 years ago a former commissioner felt it necessary for his force to stand out as distinct from all other agencies in the world. The argument was that since citizens referred to the agency as the “O-P-P,” members should be proud of the acronym and use it at every opportunity. This was done so enthusiastically that the letters replaced the one word which gave officers their authority and common bond with colleagues – “Police.”

Not only did the OPP become the only Canadian police agency to not use the word on its shoulders, its desire for uniqueness left its identity open to the imagination of the beholder. Hence- forth the impact of that shoulder patch would be purposefully diminished by an act of... “tradition.”

Policing traditions should primarily further an agency’s goals in how it relates to the public. They must also advance the pride of the individuals expected to work within it, reflecting a kin- ship with other agencies instead of antagonism as one army would relate to another.

A shoulder patch must clearly define for the public the authority of the individual wearing it. Without a doubt the wearer of that uniform must be a known entity. If the agency name fails them, then the universal word which bonds all agencies together must be clearly seen without equivocation or second thoughts. That person is a POLICE officer and that is a tradition we can all be proud of in this country.

I think the image the Queen granted the OPP is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and its recent discovery should present an opportunity, not a problem. Adopting it would begin a new tradition with a deep pedigree, yet also be instantly “traditional” in a classic sense. To make up for lost time, mostly caused by some levels of management, the OPP should simply ask its members whether the Queen’s approved badge should be adopted in its present form.

Once placed in a position of respect and clearly dignified by using the word “Police,” the Ontario Provincial Police will step into the new millennium readily identified as a partner in serving and protecting Canadians.

To paraphrase the Latin phrase on the present badge, ‘they will become more illustrious through service.”

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